Why I am Running for Cambridge City Council at 19-years-old

Photo Credit: Olivie Nie Photography

Photo Credit: Olivie Nie Photography

I’m Nadya Okamoto. I’m 19-years-old and a first-year student at Harvard College, and I am also running for Cambridge City Council.

I am running for:

  1. Young people in Cambridge to have direct representation and trust in their local government;

  2. For families struggling to find adequate and stable housing;

  3. To maximize the potential of how local universities can contribute to Cambridge;

  4. For equitable opportunities in education and employment for all;

  5. and Progress towards a more environmentally-friendly city.

Although I am “young” as some people might say, I believe that with my background in grassroots organizing, activism, and community capacity building -- and my personal connection to the key issues many underserved Cantabrigians face every day, I can bring a much-needed, complementary perspective to City Council.

Whether it be fighting for affordable housing, educational equity, worker’s rights, or our environment, I’ll be right there with Cambridge acting as a megaphone for all residents.

I serve and advocate because I find it to be my way of reconciling the privilege that I have in holding access to opportunities in education and advancement and having the freedom to use my voice for good. I have always been someone excited about engaging with peers, leading by empowering others to be leaders themselves and making an impact in any capacity.

My passion for public service and acting as an advocate formed during my family’s experience with losing our own home during my freshman to sophomore year of high school. During this time, my commute to school changed from twelve minutes to two hours on multiple bus lines. I began to recognize familiar faces on my route, and befriend some fellow riders and individuals who camped out at the bus stops in downtown.

I became fascinated by other people’s stories of resilience in the face of adversity. This was mostly because it helped to distract my mind from my own personal situation, reminded me of how fortunate I was, and pushed me to keep pursuing my education. Throughout that point in my life, I was consistently keeping a journal. Almost every night before going to sleep, I would write in my journal about my day and record the stories of many of the homeless women I met.

One weekend, I spent a night at a shelter on my own to hide bruises that I endured from an abusive relationship I was in at the time. That night, I realized in looking back at my journal, that I noted menstrual hygiene as a need shockingly often. I had collected an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases, and most commonly brown paper grocery bags, to maintain their periods. I wrote down quotes from the women of how scared they were to ask for menstrual hygiene products because they were embarrassed by their periods, but also how poor menstrual hygiene caused them so much discomfort. I noted how nervous they seemed to chat with me about their periods as if it was a forbidden topic.

That night in the shelter was a huge turning point for me to realize how fortunate I was to have access to educational opportunities and still have confidence in my potential, and I knew I had to do something to act upon this unaddressed natural need of menstrual hygiene. I talked to shelters and nonprofits and found that none of the nonprofits I talked to provided menstrual hygiene products continuously, either due to a lack of resources or a lack of displayed need. Thus, there was this never-ending cycle of organizations not prioritizing menstrual hygiene and women in need being too afraid to advocate for it--leaving periods completely unaddressed.

In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, when my family saved up enough for us to move back into our two-bedroom apartment, I founded PERIOD. What started as a personal project to use savings to buy and hand out menstrual hygiene products on my way to school, with the help of an amazing and driven youth team of peers, is now an exponentially growing organization that has addressed over 78,000 periods and registered over 67 campus chapters.

I tell this story because it is my driving force, the root of why I do what I do. I have had experiences where I have felt voiceless, powerless, often only finding temporary worth in what I thought my body had to offer...so when I finally acknowledged that I did have a voice, and I saw how by partnering up with other young people, activating my curiosity to learn and lead, I was not going to stop using my voice.

I do what I do because my purpose is to love and build community while uplifting others and reconcile the privilege, voice, and passion that I have to serve and make a difference wherever I am and with whatever I have.

I am running for Cambridge City Council because this beautiful, diverse, and uniquely progressive city is facing issues that I feel personally connected to and very passionate about -- from the affordable housing crisis we are facing, the growing demographics of homeless people, education inequity and an extreme wealth gap pushing forward gentrification, and with a plethora of opportunities for improvement in the field of environmentally-conscious living, I want to be a megaphone for Cambridge residents in our local government and beyond.

Cambridge has an amazing opportunity to truly be the city that leads by example when it comes to progress in general, one that other cities look up to, and I believe that with my goals for community development, equitable opportunities, and university relations, I can help push that goal strides forward. This place is quite literally a place of new beginnings, setting new precedents, and pushing forward progress. It is a place where people travel from all over the world to, to learn, and innovate, and cultivate skills that will make them more effective global citizens. So, let’s celebrate our differences. It doesn’t matter where we come from, how we identify, or what we have, what matters is what we do now as current residents of this city.

This is a competitive race -- with at least 25 candidates for 9 positions, and 8 incumbents running. We’re going up against some people who have been in the same career for 30 years or more. I understand that it is easy to look at me and my team, and think that we don’t have what it takes -- maybe acknowledge the potential that we have to really make a significant difference here, but think that we might be “too young.”

Well, here’s my response. When you think about the skills that are really needed to be a city council person — interacting with the public, organizing at a grassroots levels, community building, visionary thinking, the ability to represent, defend, listen to constituents, and advocate for people — I think that those are all things that my track record shows that I can do and that I love to do.

Young is not a term that can define my capability. I think that people may question my commitment but if I put my mind and heart to something, and I really believe in it, I’m not going to let it down and I’m going to prioritize it. To other young people, when someone tells you that you are too young to do something, push them on it -- what do they really mean? Because, technically, saying you are too young is really just saying that you were born in a more recent year than them. Are they saying that they think you haven’t had enough experience? That they don’t trust your judgment or your capabilities? The year you are born in should not define your potential and what you can do now. I am running right now because I believe that I have something special and unique to offer this city, and perspectives and ideas to push forward progress and offer solutions, and I believe that I have the skills and experience to do this strongly. I may be young, but I started my career in public service much earlier than most. I am also not in this alone, the team behind this campaign and the youth voices we are hoping to amplify are unique to our campaign.

One of the biggest questions my campaign will be challenged with is how I can be a strong city councilor if I am not originally from here, but I remind people that Cambridge is a city of people coming from all over the world and we are trying to push forward this message that you can be involved and make a difference wherever you are, whoever you are, and with whatever you have. We want people, regardless of the fact of when they moved here, to be involved. And I think that that can start with us. We are eager to learn, I am committed to meeting with residents whenever possible, traveling around and listening to others, and learning all I can along with my team, on how we can best serve this community.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and we are excited to get started. I keep going back to a key statistic that keeps me up at night fueled by motivation to work towards solutions to the issues Cambridge currently faces: the fact that in this city, the median market price of a single-family home is over $1.25 million. But over 45% of students in public schools are at or below the poverty line, and we are still facing an affordable housing crisis.

First and foremost, this campaign is about Cambridge -- serving the community of Cambridge residents, and offering solutions to guide progress and equity. This campaign is ALSO about setting a precedent for young people to engage in local politics, or in initiatives of leadership where they can affect change at a local or national level.

There is a clear lack of representation in our country’s elected roles of young people, women, and people of color. Less than 20% of our elected government positions are held by women, even though we make up at least 50% of the population, and that needs to change, same goes for young people and people of color.

Young people have so much influence, more than we could ever know. We just witnessed an unprecedented and shocking presidential election, which could have very easily been swayed by more youth participation. If you think about it, politics is all a game to push forward ideas and offered solutions that people or parties think will better the future for the next generation. Politicians are literally working in the field of systemic change to make a lasting impact. So, if they’re working on a better future, then shouldn’t our future leaders have a say in that?

There should not be this disconnect that currently exists of a future being created for a generation that isn’t being as involved with such discussions. This is all of our futures, but more so, as young people, our future. And I think that if those in elected office truly believe in the goal of improving the future, then we should have full support as young people to be more involved and have a seat at the table.

The turning point of my committing to run for office after trying to encourage many of my other peers to go for it, was when I was asked why I wasn’t running, and I realized that the only answer that I could think of was “I am too young, and I will just lose because of that.” That’s when I knew, that I was sort of being a hypocrite because I believe down to my core that young people can do it -- we can do it -- and we deserve it. That was when I re-committed to not only speaking my truth but also living it.

I think that not many young people, women, or people of color always see elected office as an opportunity. We live in a country where when you think of a politician, you think of an old white man. When you’re young and you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, you answer that question based off of what you know is possible for you, and we need to work towards encouraging a narrative that anything is possible, and your answer to that question should not be limited by current lack of representation in fields of interest.

But I would also just say: it’s scary. I am so excited but to be honest, I am absolutely terrified. My experiences, my values, and who I am is going to be questioned from now until November, more than I would have ever expected.

When we live in a country where when you’re a young woman, you’re under a lot of pressure already with your body -- what you look like, how you speak, how you can interact on an intellectual level -- and you put all of that under the spotlight to be examined and possibly publicly declared inadequate, that is a lot of pressure. But to me, it’s worth it -- and right now, more than ever before, we need to be pushing forward diversity in our government.

Even if we don’t win, the fact that we’re running a campaign that’s empowering people of all identities is really meaningful to me. We want to send out this message that we as young people and mostly people of color, can run a well thought out, beautiful campaign that’s worth talking about and worth listening to. Even the idea that we’re running and bringing attention to the fact that young people should be in politics, and have a right to be in politics, that matters.

I want to end with an invitation: to come work with our campaign for Cambridge City Council -- this is one part of a larger movement that I hope you join us on. I want to hear your ideas, your feedback, your interests -- so please reach out. We can do this, and our chances are only elevated when we work together.

Right now, and always, is our time. Our community -- whether that be in terms of the Cambridge community or the global community -- needs us. So let’s use our voices and whatever we have to make the most of the time and potential that we have. Thank you.