A Day with Cambridge City Council Candidate, Nadya Okamoto

Janelle Anderson's picture

  • Okamoto and Fantani during their meeting at the Cambridge School Comittee office.
  • Okamoto used a borrowed laptop during her meetings throughout the day.
  • Okamoto and Mazzola during the coveration at Algier's Coffee House
  • Isobel Green and Ana Chaves talking to Nadya about the Cambridge Homeless Shelter
  • Okamoto on her way to dance practice via the Havard shuttle bus.
Nadya Okamoto on a phonecall with DivaCup for her non-profit organization,PERIOD.

On Tuesdays, Nadya Okamoto has two classes, Human Colloquium and Beginners Spanish II. By 2 o’clock,  she’s done with courses and yet, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Okamoto found herself without free time to relax in her dorm or throw a frisbee on the campus lawn. She had six scheduled meetings, two discussion panels, and dance practice squeezed onto the day’s agenda on her phone.

The 19-year old Harvard student’s heavy schedule goes beyond the demanding workload of the Ivy League curriculum. She’s the cofounder and executive director of PERIOD, a non-profit organization she started at 16.

She’s also running for Cambridge City Council.

Peers and Politics

After humanities class, Okamoto scheduled an early lunch with Kemi Akenzua, a peer of hers, that expressed interest in the campaign.

Okamoto usually works through her meals. Whether in person or over the phone, Okamoto finds herself ready to converse with a plate of food and a legal pad or computer nearby.

The pair met in Annenberg Hall, a freshman dining hall on campus. Okamoto wanted to explain her reasoning for running for local office and get a sense of Akenzua’s potential contribution to the team.

“ We’re running a national campaign for local office,” said Okamoto.

Okamoto and her campaign released a video in late March along with their campaign website and social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So far, her candidacy announcement video has over 30,000 views on Facebook. The VoteNadya social media accounts have 855 likes on Facebook, 181 followers on Instagram, and 82 followers on Twitter. Okamoto makes sure to mention her campaign on her personal media accounts too. She has over 2,200 followers on Instagram alone.

A majority of campaign efforts will gain momentum at the end of the semester and extend into the summer. Akenzua plans to work remotely from Los Angeles and abroad. Okamoto expressed during their meeting that every position needed to be filled by a young person.  She joked that working on a political campaign over the summer would be better than getting coffee at an unpaid summer internship.

“ Youth needs to get involved in politics [and] support someone who is young.” said Akenzua.

Back in November, during Okamoto’s first semester at school, she juggled school work and her commitments to PERIOD. She was also grappling with the fact that Donald Trump was elected president.

The night of election she hugged people she had never met before. She cried  and spoke with people she never met before. She kept in contact with strangers and they became her close friends on campus. These relationships and conversations were part of  Okamoto’s inspiration to run for office.

Initially Okamoto and her peers, viewed the election outcome as opportunity to become apart of a bigger movement encouraging young people to engage in politics.

'“ We just lost an election that could’ve easily been swayed by youth participation,” said Okamoto.

When she found herself at different events and social gatherings celebrating and acknowledging the activism, social justice, and women empowerment, she started to speak out about youth political engagement.

She expressed that young people should vote, not just for general elections, but for local ones too. She also advocated running for office as way to get involved.

Okamoto soon learned that her advocacy alone for youth political participation wasn't enough.

“Someone asked me why I wouldn’t do it and I was like I’m was too young. That was my first answer.  I was realizing that I was being a total hypocrite and that if I really wanted to live my truth I had to do what I believed other people should do. And so, I filed the next day, after spending a night on Google search and meeting with an incumbent here [in Cambridge], Nadeem Mazen.” explained Okamoto.

Comments on the campaign's Facebook page criticized her for trying to build her resume and ego as an overachieving Harvard student.

Okamoto assured Akenzua, during their lunch meeting, that this wasn’t the case.  Akenzua plans to work on the marketing and social media for the campaign.

“Don’t worry about inexperience,”  said Okamoto. “We’re all inexperienced. I’ve never ran for office before.”

Meetings and More Meetings

After her meeting with Akenzua, Okamoto scheduled another meeting. She planned to meet Alfred Fantini, the vice chair of the Cambridge School Committee.

Okamoto and her campaign team compiled a roster of all the people in the local government with their contact information. Since the campaign launch, Okamoto has been working to  reach out to all of them. She emailed Fantini and they arranged to meet at the committee’s office in Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School.

Fantani and Okamoto sat at a large conference table.  While choosing a place to sit, Fantani offered on Okamoto a beverage. She opted for a diet coke and as he set his coffee on the table, Okamoto  put her schoolbag and jacket in a chair closest to the entrance and took a seat right next to his.

“ I’m running for Cambridge City Council,” said Okamoto midway into the meeting after introductions and formal small talk.

She scribbled in a yellow legal pad she fished out of her bag and occasionally sipped on her cola as Fantini answered her questions about access to free meals and closing achievement gap in Cambridge Public Schools.

Fantini has been on the school committee since 1983.

“I found the students in the earlier eighties to be far more active than the students today” said Fantini. “ The younger kids had a lot of spirit. They didn’t just come up with initiative.”

He said he blames this generation’s lack of engagement to extracurriculars and phones.

“ You guys have a lot on your plate,” he said to Okamoto.

Before ending their meeting Okamoto assured she be in touched. The committee office was only a few block away from campus and leaving early allowed her to get textbooks from her dorm before Spanish class at 1 p.m.

In a shared freshman suite, Okamoto has a room to herself. Clothing pieces covered her bed and her closet space, and every drawer of her dresser were open. On her desk were rows of novels, a portrait of her with her two younger sisters when they were little, and her Spanish textbook. She took the textbook, her water bottle and an open of packet of almonds from Annenberg Hall and rushed out the door to class. She almost didn’t notice the box of Bagel Bites outside of the entrance before she left.

After Spanish class, Okamoto had a phone conference scheduled with a DivaCup representative to discuss product distribution for PERIOD.

PERIOD supplies menstruation products to homeless people through a series of campus chapters throughout the country. In addition to supplying period products in papers bags, the organization strives to destigmatize the taboo around periods.

Some of PERIOD’s nonprofit partners distribute reusable menstrual care products in addition to disposable ones. Since the organization's start to 2014, over 81,000 periods have been supported through their supply. In Okamoto’s phone call with DivaCup she planned to ask for an increase of cups for the organization. DivaCup usually donates about 75 cups in a quarter for the entire organizations. She and her co-founder, Vincent Forand, wanted to ask for 300.

Okamoto decided to go Winthrop Dining Hall for her phone call and another meal.

With only ten minutes before her call, Okamoto had earbuds in and connected to her phone and a laptop  out  and ready on the dining table to take any notes during her meeting.

She used a borrowed Mac at the time because her personal computer was getting repaired. This didn’t stop her from connecting to her Apple account and syncing all of her information to the borrowed device. She already managed to have over 10 Google Chrome tabs open and Netflix was running in the background.

“ I always have TV on when I work. It’s always running.”said Okamoto, eating another spoonful of peanut butter.

In addition to her browser tabs, Okamoto keep the Notes application on her computer running, and whenever a task was completed or added to her scheduled she managed to record it in a note titled, MASTERLIST. There she keeps her to-dos for school, PERIOD, the campaign, and any other task that needs to be done.

During the phonecall, Okamoto finished her snack of peanut butter and bananas and a DivaCup representative asked to be an exclusive partner.

Okamoto called her co-founder immediately after the phone call. Forand goes to school at Cornell, but the two manage to keep a tight line of communication despite the long distance.

The pair planned to discuss PERIOD matters later that night.

“I’m pulling an all-nighter tonight. I’ll call you then, okay?” Okamoto told Forand over the phone.

Okamoto scheduled a meeting with MaryRose Mazzola after her DivaCup call. Mazzola was the former Communications and Field Director for Michelle Wu’s Boston City Council re-election campaign in 2015. A alum from Okamoto’s high school went to school with Mazzola and put them in contact with each other. Okamoto​ and Mazzola agreed to meet at Algier's Coffee House, a short walk away from Harvard Square, to talk about campaign strategies over coffee.

Okamoto found Mazzola’s political work on Wu’s campaign interesting because it aligned with experience with young political candidates.  Wu was 30 at the time of re-election campaign. Okamoto also thought Mazzola’s current role as Executive Director of Boston’s Women’s Workforce Council a bonus.

“I just want to talk to cool people to bounce ideas off of.” said Okamoto.

During their meeting, Okamoto told Mazzola about her family's struggle with homelessness.  For a couple of months, Okamoto’s family was without a home and lived in friends' homes.

One night Okamoto stayed in a homeless shelter by herself to avoid confronting her mother about an abusive relationship she was in. Her experience in homeless shelters inspired her to start PERIOD and is also reason for her focus on the Cambridge homeless community for the campaign.

During their conversation, Mazzola kept taking notes of people she would get Okamoto in contact with.

“ You need something to help your campaign stand out. Get your personal narrative out and tie it around specific policy issues,” Mazzola told Okamoto. “ I think there’s probably fear that  your justing running because you want to run and you’re a Harvard student and you just want to be in office. So I think you have to tie your narrative to specific things.”

Making the Most of Spare Time

By 4 p.m. Okamoto had some free time on her hands. She made reminders of the talks and panel discussions at Harvard for the day and planned to stop by for a few to hear the conversations.

A peer of Okamoto’s organizes Tuesday talks called, Politics and Pizza. That Tuesday Saira Blair, the youngest elected into state office, spoke on campus. Blair was elected into the West Virginia House of Delegate at 18 in 2014. She’s a member of the Republican party, but Okamoto wanted to hear Blair’s tips and strategy for running a successful campaign at a young age.

Okamoto’ s campaign director, Claira Janover was also in the room for the panel discussion and made sure to ask Blair question for the campaign. The two briefly texted across the room as Blair spoke.

“I asked her a lot about her fundraising and canvassing strategies, how she overcame her age or even used it to her advantage, and any advice she would have for a team of similarly young and excited students.” said Janover.

Okamoto stepped out of the pizza chat to charge her laptop at a nearby campus cafe for fifteen minutes before a meeting with a humanities professor. There she check to make sure she pack her suede red shoes for dance practice later that night.

After meeting with her professor,  Okamoto briefly attended the Black Muslim Histories in Boston panel discussion, grabbed dinner with Cambridge Homeless Shelter volunteers on campus and went to ride the shuttle bus to the other campus.

On the other side of campus she practices the dance choreography for Eleganza. She was in ⅔ of the songs for the performance.

Okamoto scheduled to dance for two hours and planned to get work done for the rest of the night.

The following day there would more to do, more classes to attend, more people to talk to.

“My schedule is really booked, but I’m just so committed to everything I’m doing,” explained Okamoto. “ I got to this point in the second month of college when I wanted to make sure that everything I’m doing I love. Everything I’m doing doesn’t feel like work."