Though many freshmen compete for seats on Harvard’s Undergraduate Council each year, it’s less typical for students to run for local office.
But a Harvard freshman from Portland, Ore., Nadya Okamoto ’20, intends to do just that, announcing Wednesday a bid for a spot on the Cambridge City Council.
The founder of a women’s health nonprofit, PERIOD, Okamoto said her platform will center around affordable housing, education equity, youth engagement with politics, and maximizing local universities’ contributions to Cambridge.
The last Harvard student to run for City Council was 26-year-old Logan E. Leslie ’16 in 2013. Leslie, a freshmen at the time, campaigned for increased student representation in the city. He came in 14th in the election, missing out on one of the nine seats up for grabs that year.
Okamoto said she feels deeply committed to making a difference in Cambridge.
“Originally I was inspired [to run] because I am very connected to a lot of issues Cambridge is facing today,” Okamoto said. “For example, affordable housing and the homelessness crisis—those are things my family has experienced.”
This year’s election will be held Nov. 7. Okamoto said her team of seven full-time organizers will be working on campaigning over the summer.
Okamoto said that regardless of the election results, she hopes her campaign can get out the vote among Harvard students, and, more broadly, inspire youth to get involved in local government.
“This whole idea is really young people coming on and not just being an intern but running it—anyone from our campaign director to our field director to our director of local engagement [are] all young people,” Okamoto said.
After the 2016 presidential election, Okamoto encouraged other young people to vote and run for office. Then, Okamoto said, someone suggested she run herself.
“I realized my only answer was that I was too young, which was kind of a huge turning point for me,” Okamoto said. “I wanted to not only speak with my truth but also live it out, which is why I am really committed to running now.”
City Councillor Nadeem A. Mazen said he enjoyed meeting with Okamoto and hearing about her platform.
“I was super impressed with Nadya,” Mazen said. “Nadya came with—despite her young age—incredible spirit and incredible energy, but also incredible knowledge about how to lead people, about how to build communities, about how to fight for social justice.”
Mazen said he valued Okamoto’s focus on “issues and people,” as well as her hope to ensure local university programs benefit Cambridge as much as possible. He said he was also struck by her dedication to social justice issues and her past nonprofit work.
“All of that blends together to make someone who has a very compelling message,” Mazen said.
Mazen also said he was excited about the possibility for Okamoto to mobilize students on Harvard’s campus. Having worked on social justice issues as an undergraduate at MIT, Mazen spoke of students’ “deep desire to get involved in community.”
Mazen said that while Cantabrigians tend to be wary of university decision-makers who may not represent local communities, he thinks Okamoto could help bridge Harvard and Cambridge through programming and cooperation.
“I think obviously Nadya is poised to do that at an incredibly important time for university impact in underserved neighborhoods,” Mazen said.
Okamoto said that if elected, she would focus on relations between Harvard and Cambridge. She said she hopes to channel “the brainpower and innovation and the resources of Harvard to give back into the local community around us.”
She also said she would consider taking a leave of absence from school in order to be fully committed to the Council.
“I want to be the City Councillor who really invests their time and their efforts to actually listening to constituents,” she said. “People are depending on you.”
–Staff writer Alison W. Steinbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.
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