This Inspiring Teen is Running For City Council
"Young is not a term that can define my capability."
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. This year, Global Citizen’s new series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” will chronicle the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
Millennials have often been called self-righteous, lazy, impatient, entitled, and even politically-apathetic “snowflakes.” But since the lead up to the 2016 presidential primary election, a surge of young people have become politically involved, believing in the power of social movements and disassociating themselves from traditional party affiliations.
Unemployment and student debt have fueled this uptick, inspiring many young people to rally, march, protest, and vote their way toward economic security.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), an estimated 23.7 million young voters voted in the 2016 presidential election, or 50% of the population between the ages of 18 and 29.
This is only marginally higher than national voter turnout, which hovered around 45%.
Up until now, that political organization has not generated much by way of involvement in politics.
The current legislature is one of the oldest in US history, with an average age of 58. That number is mirrored at the local level, where there is a clear lack of youth representation.
But one 19-year-old is working to change that.
Nadya Okamoto is a college freshman at Harvard University and the founder of PERIOD. — a nonprofit leading the menstrual movement. And now she’s registering to run for Cambridge City Council. Okamoto is the youngest of over 25 running to fill nine positions this November — eight of whom are incumbents.
This unstoppable teen began her career in public service at an early age, after she was introduced to the alarming realities of homelessness. Inspired by the underprivileged women she met at shelters, she took on the bold initiative to provide them with menstrual hygiene products.
In the past two years, her nonprofit has addressed over 75,000 periods worldwide.
“It is abnormal to run a global NGO (non-governmental organization) and run for office at 19. But we elect people who are abnormal,” she told Global Citizen.
Nadya Okamoto (center) with campaign team (Image: Nadya Okamoto).
Okamoto’s campaign is unprecedented for Cambridge, the home of prestigious universities like Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Cambridge is still facing the same issues it’s faced decades ago,” she said. “We’re still facing a lot of problems that I think I can add a lot of fresh perspective to.”
Her team is made up of a group of young men and women — many of them students — who believe in the importance of grassroots empowerment.
“This hasn’t really been done before and people don’t know what to expect. We’re pushing ourselves to figure out what to expect. There will be surprises, there will be challenges but we’re excited about it,” she said.
Here’s what Okamoto had to say about the challenges of running a youth-led campaign and the importance of young women pursuing politics:
Global Citizen: What inspired you to become involved in public service?
Nadya Okamoto: I really take it back to my family and the experiences we’ve been through. In the spring of my freshman year of high school when my family experienced what it was like to not have a home of our own, I think that was a really pivotal time to think about privilege. Seeing the homeless women and meeting with them — who were in much worse living situations than I was — made me think about privilege as a spectrum, and where I was on that spectrum. Those experiences and actually ending up in a shelter for a night, made me realize that I wanted to reconcile the privilege I have through public service.
Global Citizen: How have your experiences as a woman — specifically, a woman of color — helped you become the candidate you are today?
Nadya Okamoto: Diversity is one of the reasons I’m in love with Cambridge. First of all, it’s a very diverse city. I would also say it’s a welcoming hub for people from all over the world. We have the most well endowed educational institutions here. This is a place for people to travel to, to learn and innovate...there is a clear lack of representation — young people, women, and people of color. And so when you look at our campaign team, you’ll see that the majority are young people, women, or people of color. So even if we don’t win, the fact that we’re running a campaign that’s empowering people of all three of these identities is really meaningful to me.
Global Citizen: You are the youngest one in the race — do you feel discriminated against for your age?
Nadya Okamoto: Yes. I would say that there are two things that are really working against us. 1) My age, and 2) The fact that I’m not from Cambridge.
We’re going up against some people who have been in the same career for 30 years or more...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, 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.
And then there’s the fact that I’m not from here. But I remind people that Cambridge is a city of people coming from all over the world and we [the campaign] 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.
Global Citizen: Which issues do you believe need to be covered in local politics?
Nadya Okamoto: For me, it really comes down to university relations, especially as a tool to address issues like affordable housing and education equity. Those two are issues that I feel very, very passionate about. One of the things that inspired me to get involved in this race was learning about the wealth gap here in Cambridge. I keep going back to this idea that 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. There’s just so much more we can do about that.
Global Citizen: Barely 20% of women make up the house and senate. How do we change that narrative? Do you think it’s important to?
Nadya Okamoto: We get women to run and we work to get them elected! The reason we have elected officials is to represent the people and the experiences of the people and to fight for solutions on behalf of those. Right now, we do not have equal representation. If over 50% of our population is women but only 20% are represented in government, there is something wrong.
It’s also the same story with Asian Americans — I believe only three percent of elected officials are Asian American, yet we make up 5% of the population. That’s why we need to get these people to run, that’s why we need to get them elected.
Global Citizen: In your opinion, why do you believe not enough young women pursue a career in politics?
Nadya Okamoto: I think that not many people see it 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 see and what excites you. But I would also just say: it’s scary. I am so excited but I am 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, to put that under the spotlight to be examined and possibly publicly declared inadequate is a lot of pressure.
Global Citizen: How do we empower these young people — particularly, women — to run?
Nadya Okamoto: That’s kind of why we’re doing this. We want to send out this message that we can run a well thought out, beautiful campaign that’s worth talking about...Even if we don’t win, 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.
When you think about it, government and politics is all about shaping the future and so future leaders should have a say in that. That seems so clear to me. The only way we’re going to make systemic and sustainable change is by making sure that the young people actually agree with, support and believe in what we’re doing to carry on.
Global Citizen: How do you plan on balancing school, extracurricular activities, managing a nonprofit, and a term in office?
Nadya Okamoto: If I had the opportunity be elected, I would most likely take a leave of absence because I want to prioritize this and serve as best as I can. I think that if that requires me taking a leave of absence, then that’s what is going to happen.
Global Citizen: Are there any women or politicians in particular that inspire you?
Nadya Okamoto: Oh, absolutely! I had the opportunity to work with Wendy Davis this summer and she is a huge inspiration to me. I actually went to the DNC [Democratic National Convention] with her, where I watched Joe Biden speak on the second to last night and I was in tears because I realized that this is what I want to do. Joe Biden also inspires me. He was elected when he was really young — late 20s is really young to be elected senator. Finding those young people and learning about them has always been a big inspiration for me.
Global Citizen: If you could say anything to a young woman who is considering running for office but is hesitant, what would you say?
Nadya Okamoto: You can do it, we can do it, and we need you to do it.