On April 27, the Boston Foundation’s Annual Campaign for Civic Leadership hosted an online conversation between the Foundation’s President and CEO, M. Lee Pelton, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. The wide-ranging discussion covered many facets of leadership—what’s new, what’s old, what’s surprising and what’s keeping the mayor up at night.
On her 160th day in office, the Mayor was as eloquent as on the campaign trail, now steeped in the daily realities of City Hall. Wu, the first woman elected mayor of Boston and the second woman of color to hold the position, said, “For me, leadership and being your authentic self can’t be separated.” She is now a leader, professional, boss, parent of young children, child of immigrant parents, commuter, climate advocate and more.
When Pelton asked how she juggles all that, she mused that it may seem notable because we’re used to seeing a certain type of leader in Boston’s key positions—men who traditionally did not bring their full selves to the role. On the how-to, she was frank: “It means saying no to some things. But there are 19,000 City of Boston staff who are just waiting to be empowered and step into roles. If one person is trying to do everything, we’re not going to get so far.” As many working women know, she said, juggling work, family and everything else requires building out the team.
Her familiarity with City Hall after 10 years of working there, including for the late Mayor Tom Menino, reduced the number of surprises in store when she stepped into the job. The biggest surprise since taking office, she said, “has been how much what we do and how we communicate is affected by national currents. These are deeply divided right now and growing in toxicity, with a visible rise in levels of hate across the country. In 2014, there was a distance between what happened in the city and the federal government… now, when our communications can be targeted by right wing national forces, it has an impact.”
Pelton wondered who some of her models for leadership might be. She said she is among the many who miss Mayor Menino, and she thinks often about how he would approach things. She admires how he knew every block of the city and who lived there and what they cared about. She also cited Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley as “incredible women who’ve been shattering ceilings and building ladders and infrastructure for others to follow. Their unapologetic, bold focus on getting things done is something I’m excited to see every day.”
Pelton and Wu spoke about the intersection of social challenges represented by the troubles evident particularly at Mass Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The challenges of child-care access and affordability, and of hiring top officials like school superintendent or police commissioner. The persistent matter of racism and looming matter of climate crisis. The Mayor shared some of the ideas being implemented or explored by the City, from geographically decentralizing social services to purchasing electric school buses.
Pelton closed by asking what keeps the Mayor up at night. “What keeps me up? Mental health, for one: We see the strain everywhere across the community, from young people to seniors… Young people are always on my mind. We live in a mecca of education and Boston Public Schools should reflect that. There’s much change coming. It may get more complicated before it gets better. And I worry about this moment in our nation’s history…. There’s a lot that spills over into Boston from how divided our politics are nationally. I know we have the capacity here to set a different tone but it will take intentionality and work.” She added, “I truly believe that the way we get our country and democracy back on track is to prove that it’s possible at the local level.”