In September 1980, a young woman named Minka Y. vanBeuzekom moved into the Kendall Square neighborhood. Now, armed with the experience that comes with raising two daughters, developing a long history of community involvement, and spending 31 years in Cambridge, she is running for Cambridge City Council.
VanBeuzekom is not new to campaigning. She ran for Cambridge City Council in 2009 and lost. This time, she is taking the lessons learned from her first campaign and building on them. For one, she has jump-started her social media presence, logging 1,907 tweets as of Saturday under the handle @MinkavB.
“The first time is the hardest,” she says. “There’s so much that’s different. I have much more of a step-by-step plan about how to proceed, with time tables built in.”
This plan includes careful campaign planning and targeted, timed mailings, such as the letter to biotech companies in Cambridge that volunteers gathered in vanBeuzekom’s home were stuffing into envelopes a few weeks ago. While vanBeuzekom talked to the Crimson in the kitchen, the volunteers realized that a number of envelopes had been addressed upside down. The candidate was not concerned.
“That’s the human touch,” she called out from the next room, adding, “I don’t think they need to redo them all.”
She does not fit the profile of your average politician. A Molecular Biology major with a Masters in Public Health, Environmental Health, and Epidemiology, much of her in background is in the sciences. She has worked as a researcher for both Harvard University and MIT, studying neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. In her years as a Cambridge resident, environmental and sustainability issues have always been a focus.
Her eclectic resume includes time spent on the Cambridge Democratic City Committee and the Area Four Neighborhood Coalition, but also the Home Energy Efficiency Team, Green Decade Cambridge. She also is a self-professed gardening and rat-trapping enthusiast.
“Everything that I do is pretty much through an environmental prism,” vanBeuzekom says. “It’s community, it’s air quality, it’s water quality, it’s food, it’s energy consumption, whether it’s renewable energy—everything fits under that banner.”
However, vanBeuzekom traces the roots of her community involvement back to her two daughters. In early 1990, as her eldest daughter was set to enter kindergarten in September, vanBeuzekom and her ex-husband discovered that they had not been granted any of the top five school choices that they had picked under Cambridge’s controlled choice enrollment system. They were not the only parents they knew of in this situation, and so a group of frustrated families decided they start their own school: The Cambridgeport School.
“I don’t remember how, but we ended up finding each other, and working together to petition the school board, to say, well clearly, there’s something lacking,” says vanBeuzekom. “You have all these parents that don’t have a school for their kids, and you know, you have under schools that have under-enrollment. So, let’s get another school going.”
They began with one kindergarten classroom, taught by Mary E. Cronin in space at the Morse School. VanBeuzekom’s daughter was among the first students. The next fall, the school increased to kindergarten through second grade, and the School Committee leased space for the venture at the Sacred Heart School.
Today, the school has expanded to grades K through eight, with an enrollment of about 300. She is no longer involved with its management, although she recalls those “chaotic” early years fondly.
“When it was first starting out, oh my gosh, we just did so much,” she says. “We went through those stacks of resumes for the teachers, we helped shape the curriculum, we picked out the principal.”
VanBeuzekom sees that intense parental involvement as a key factor in building a strong school community. The City Council’s involvement in the school system is limited by its finances, but still vanBeuzekom points to Cambridge’s schools as a potential area for community improvement.
“Cambridge is an absolutely incredible place. We are so wealthy in terms of money and intellectual capital—Harvard and MIT. We are an incredibly lucky place to have all that coming together,” van Beuzekom says. “The schools are the single black eye, I think.”
Meanwhile, that kindergarten class vanBeuzekom helped bring together 21 Septembers ago has returned to help her. One of the then five and six year old students in that first class, Ian H. Carlson, is now the treasurer on her campaign.
“When I first knew her, it was just as a very warm, caring person, as a parent to me and to the class at the Cambridgeport school,” Carlson says. “When I met her again ... I guess I would say she just comes off as a pretty motivated and principled person, and a fresh voice for the City Council.”