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For a lot of college sophomores, life consists of studying, partying, and picking a major. But Nadya Okamoto, a sophomore at Harvard College, has a bit more on her plate. The 19-year-old is on a mission to become Cambridge’s youngest City Council member ever — and is registering all the students she can in process. Okamoto told MTV News about her historic race, her dreams for her community, and what it’s like to knock on doors of locals who’ve been voting longer than she’s been alive.
This piece has been edited and condensed.
I’m Nadya Okamoto. I’m 19 years old and I’m a sophomore at Harvard College. I’m running for Cambridge city council.
I got involved [with politics] with no intention of running. It became a joke among some of the people who knew how passionate I was about housing policy and economic diversity strategies here in Cambridge. It sort of became, “If you have so many ideas, why don’t you just run yourself?” Suddenly it just clicked, like, “Why don’t I run?” I realized the only thing holding me back was the fact that [thought I] was too young.
Within the first week, it solidified in my mind that we were a small part of a larger movement for young people in politics. When I launched my campaign video, I simply put it on Facebook [and] didn’t put any money behind boosting it or anything. It’s gotten like 30,000 [views]. Those views were from all over the country and actually all over the world. A lot of young people [have been] reaching out [saying], “This is so cool. I didn’t even know you could run and also I wish I could vote for you.”
That was a big thing for us because a lot of the people who were messaging us, especially in Cambridge, could vote. It’s just a matter of filling out those [registration] forms. And because [Cambridge has] ranked choice voting, every single vote counts. There are councilors elected by, like, 11 votes. You only need about 1000 number one votes to be elected — so your vote could single handedly be the deciding factor.
But my age is definitely something we receive pushback [on]. This can range anywhere from not-so-nice social media posts, to people saying that my running is the “epitome of Harvard entitlement and millennials thinking they can do anything,” to doors slamming in my face and people saying, word for word, “Sorry, I’m going to vote for someone who’s lived in Cambridge longer than you’ve been alive.” It’s something my volunteers also notice when they bring up my age in conversation at doors. We’ve knocked on about 13,000 doors so far, so it’s kind of frequent.
People have this assumption that maybe I haven’t worked before, and maybe I don’t have life experience [with my campaign] issues. I want to ask, “Okay, what does it mean when you say I’m too young? If you tell me you don’t think I have what it takes in terms of experience, that’s fine. But just talk to me about it first.”
I’m running a very progressive platform focused on housing affordability, education equity, and sustainable living. Housing affordability is something I care deeply about because I have experienced housing instability. I grew up with quite a bit of domestic violence, and Cambridge was a place my family could return to once or twice a year because my godparents live here. This concept of home is something I want to protect for all residents, regardless of their race, their religion, their age, their socio-economic status, where they come from, or how long they’ve been here.
I started working when I was 16. I worked six jobs last year to [pay for] school and to support my family. I continue to work multiple jobs. I have run nonprofits that now have national and global reach. So I want to push for this message that the year I [was] born should not define my capabilities. I have this unique ability to mobilize and engage more citizens and voices than any other candidate right now, and part of that is because of my identity and what I’ve been through.
The hardest thing for me to hear is from people I see as my [peers] who say, “I don’t understand what makes you think that you can do this.” That’s the hardest thing to hear not only because I am a 19-year-old who cares about what my peers think, but also because I really, really [don’t] want young people to question my age because I interpret that as them questioning their own capabilities as well. We’re living in a city where a whole portion of the demographic hasn’t had a seat at the table because we haven’t believed in our own voice and our potential.
[We also get backlash] because I’m a university student [and] there is a tense relationship in Cambridge. Students are often looked at as passing through the city and not being a part of the community. In a district where over 35 percent of the demographic is under the age of 25 and over 34 percent of the adult population is enrolled in a university, we’ve never had student or youth representation on the council.
We’re doing a whole push on just registering students to vote. The idea is that we’re going to try to [get] at least 10 volunteers to register at least 10 voters respectively each day. We’re just trying to make little steps that all add up to a large amount. As I said, you only need about 1000 number one votes to win.
We do come across this response of “I don’t have time to register to vote” or “sorry, I’m already registered back in my hometown.” For us it’s like, “Text me when you’re available and I will come to you with the voter registration paper.” We’re trying to make it as easy and streamlined as possible so you can’t use the excuse “I don’t have time.” It’s anywhere from doing that all the way to saying, “If you re-register [in Cambridge] we will help you re-register wherever you want to be for 2018, because we know that’s a really important year where swing states are really going to matter.”
For us it’s like, “Text me when you’re available and I will come to you with the voter registration paper.” We’re trying to make it as easy and streamlined as possible so you can’t use the excuse “I don’t have time.”
I’m pretty optimistic about our chances. Voter turnout is so low that if we do mobilize students we do have a pretty strong chance. I would be the youngest and the first Asian-American female ever elected in Cambridge history, which is exciting. There are a lot of adults who will reach out and say, “I support you. I love that you’re running but I don’t know if you’re going to win.” I really hope that people will get it into their minds that young people can not only run but can be elected.
This is the most terrifying and exhausting thing I’ve ever done. You cannot do it alone. You need to collaborate with people and you need to find people who are going to believe in this as much as you do. But at the end of the day your name is the one that’s out there. If things go wrong it’s not on your team, it’s on you. But I truly believe that if [we want] a representative democracy and [to see] social progress being exponentially pushed forward by our generation, we need to have that voice at the table.
I say this thing, and it’s very cheesy but I really hold it to my heart, which is, politics and social change [are] really just games to push forward better futures. And what better way to better our future than including the voices or future leaders in those conversations? That’s how we carry on the legacy of changing ideas. That’s [why] we really do need young people in those seats. And if they’re not going to create a seat we’re going to keep pulling a chair up to the table until they let us have a permanent seat there.
National Voter Registration Day is Tuesday, September 26. Register wherever you are to make your voice heard.Share