It's been one year since Boston Mayor Michelle Wu took office.
She was sworn in Nov. 16, 2021, just two weeks after being elected, replacing Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who inherited the seat after former mayor Marty Walsh departed to become U.S. Secretary of Labor.
Fostering equity, reforming the development process and moving towards fare-free public transit have all been priorities, and she has several achievements to point to in each area. But the mayor told GBH News this week that the slow-moving searches for top leaders to fill crucial cabinet posts and establishing new collective bargaining agreements with the city worker unions have commanded a large portion of her time.
GBH News sat down with Mayor Wu to mark her first year. Here are some interview highlights:
When you declared your candidacy the thought that you'd have to hire a police commissioner and a superintendent was not in the air. How did those things influence the work of your first year?
I figured at some point we'd have to make big hires, but not all at the same time, and not all in the first six months.
This has really been a foundational year. We started in the context of a still very rapidly evolving pandemic, with each surge different than the one before it, and a city workforce and neighborhoods and communities still very much feeling the impacts of what everyone had gone through. So, we've had to do a lot of rebuilding, filling leadership roles, building our team, setting new practices, and defining the new way of doing business within City Hall. And I'm really proud of where we've ended up after a year.
In a perfect world, we could have had a longer transition instead of just two weeks and maybe accelerated more of the hiring, but we ended up with exactly the team that I dreamed of and more in terms of people who are leading our cabinets, who have the experience and represent our communities and bring the passion for our city to do more. You can't drive an agenda without strong leadership in place across the entire team. So, that's been our focus for this year, and I think we're in a really good place going into year two.
Have you thought about grading yourself on the goals that you outlined in your swearing in – specifically, getting small things right to cultivate trust and space for larger changes?
Some components have taken much longer than I would have liked in the context of so much happening.
We started with not only vacancies that needed to be filled right away across every level of leadership, but an unprecedented situation of every single one of our city unions having an expired contract. So of the 19,000 member city workforce, most folks have been working straight through the pandemic, not having any cost of living increases or adjustments to working conditions that usually comes every few years, and that has had to take priority over some of the external work in order for it to be sustainable and to have lasting impact.
So, I would say that in terms of setting foundations, we've done very well. In terms of delivering impact, it's been slower than I would have liked, but I like to move whirlwind speed. And, year two, I think my goal is really to deepen the partnerships and relationships with community so that the work is felt even as we are in the process of marking milestones and not yet fully completed. All along the way it should feel accessible and responsive and really like we're doing this hand in hand with our residents.
What did not go fast enough and what are you most proud of?
We did not see a fully complete cabinet until September, when BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper started and even right before her, Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox started in August. Our Green New Deal Director started right around that time as well. It took until April for our chief of staff and chief of planning to come on board.
There have just been lots of transitions that have taken a time to take root and each of these leaders now building out their own teams, making it a kind of secondary wave of staffing up. I'm not sure what I could have done to make it go faster in this hiring environment and to get the caliber of amazing talent that we have been lucky enough to see join our team, but a lot of time did go by in many, many national search processes and interviews that I'm very glad to be past.
I'm proud that we've seen a bit of what's possible.
We have seen that Boston can really take on big, hard challenges and make a difference right away, whether it was responding to the Orange Line shutdown and taking on what should have been an impossible task of building a whole alternative transportation system with two weeks’ notice and seeing some lasting benefit from that. We've seen a new approach at Mass. & Cass deliver some results, although again, not complete by any stretch, but really measurable progress. We have seen new structures that we've set up to break down silos across departments, having an impact on engagement for young people, and particularly a focus on public safety and health focused on our students. And many of these are changes that will continue to see accelerated impact in the in the months to come.
And then there's little things like just the basics of making city government actually more reachable for residents. We now have our 3-1-1 app to log city service requests. It's now available in 11 different languages and something as simple as multilingual access wasn't a given before. We've tried to build that in across all of the ways in which we're reaching and touching our residents.
Relationships are so important, especially when you're trying to make big changes. How would you describe yours with the newly-elected governor?
I'm excited. I think so much of what we do is building for the long term – planting the seeds, or building the infrastructure, or laying the plans that might take a couple of years for the new building to emerge or the program to grow to its full size – and pretty early on in my tenure, Gov. Baker announced that he wasn't running for reelection and that just changes the dynamic of what you plan for and how, when you know that there's going to be such a large change coming very soon.
So, I'm excited to have that sustainability and in alignment with someone who knows our city really well, who has a demonstrated track record on many of the issues that we most need the state to partner with us on, whether it's in the opioid crisis or housing or energy prices for residents. And I'm looking forward to doing a whole lot more now that that that landscape will be set. And we have a great mandate from voters all across the state for the types of changes they want to see.
Is there anything that you really want residents to know about education as your administration moves along?
I'm in the schools every single week and every time I visit, I'm incredibly inspired by what's happening.
Our young people are definitely still feeling the impacts of several years of isolation and disruption of routines and programs that have been dismantled because of more urgent needs in crisis-level food distribution and public health outreach. And so, we really need to rebuild a lot of the supports that are outside school in order for young people inside our classrooms to have every bit of opportunity that they deserve and are ready to grab a hold of.
We are fully committed to giving every student the facilities and spaces that they deserve, the connections and access to programing, the workforce, development, pipelines.
If you look at what every city across the country is struggling with right now, the challenges that the pandemic and this new economy are presenting, it’s that people have a lot of flexibility in choosing where to live relative to where they work, it's that we're having trouble staffing up across every single sector and industry. And in fact, the Boston Public Schools can and should be the solution to all of those challenges rather than something that is identified as a problem. Because we are used to old narratives, the ways in which we are building our school system to be connected to the opportunities of the future in partnership with industries and job sectors that are in real need right now of talent and representation across all of our neighborhoods.
I'm excited for the results that we're already seeing and that we will continue to see from all that we're pouring into our schools.
I know you don't want them to overshadow everything you're doing, but it is a reality that the personal attacks your experienced coming into office are going to be part of your legacy as the first mayor who is not a white male. What should people make of that?
We are in really volatile and toxic times and even compared to a year ago, social media platforms have become more and more overtaken by those who are usually anonymously wanting to harass or express their own frustration at the state of the world to some target that they've identified. And it's not just me here in Boston. It is leaders across the country and the world. It is often leaders of color, often women of color.
I think what we've seen here, though, is that there are ways to build a little bit of a firewall locally. There are ways, unfortunately, we have a great deal of planning goes into different events now, but with clear boundaries about the difference between free speech and hate or harassment. That is an important line to draw for anyone who might be looking to get involved in public service or in leadership in our communities. It cannot be just a situation where you're left to your own and left as a target for your and your family's safety and mental health and well-being.
So, I think we've seen progress. Again, it's not completed or by no means is it perfect, but to go from four months of people at the house every single morning to, you know, now some contentious events that we're happy to manage through and receive feedback at, it's been night and day and that's through a lot of work at the city and collaboration between all of our agencies.
And we feel it at the staff level, too, so we're really focusing on how we can support our staff and have conversations and community about how to talk to each other and ensure that we locally can be a place where politics is productive and supportive and inclusive rather than a toxic environment that ends up just pushing people out and excluding the very voices that we need to hear.