Sumbul Siddiqui: A Journey to City Council and Experiences as Mayor of Cambridge

Listen

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is currently serving her second term on the Cambridge City Council, and first as Mayor of Cambridge. Photo Credit: Kyle Klein Photography

Noelle Chung, ’25, speaks with Sumbul Siddiqui, the current Mayor of Cambridge, in light of the upcoming November 2nd elections. Join a conversation on Mayor Siddiqui’s experiences growing up in Cambridge, her journey to public service, and the policies she pursues.

[Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity]

Noelle Chung: I was wondering if you could tell me about how long you’ve been a Cambridge resident and if you could tell me a little bit about the neighborhood where you live?

Sumbul Siddiqui: I've been in Cambridge since I was two years old. I came here from Pakistan when I was young with my mom, dad, and my twin brother, so Cambridge is my hometown. I've been here most of my life. I went away for college and law school, but I came back. So now I live in the Cambridgeport area. I grew up in North Cambridge in the Rindge Towers and then in the Wellington-Harrington area in the Roosevelt Towers, so I grew up in affordable housing in Cambridge.

NC: I suppose with these experiences, do you have any particular reason why Cambridge as a city is so important to you?

SS: I think it's such a unique place. I think we are the tale of two cities. We have Harvard, we have MIT, we have the tech epicenter, biotechnology, labs, development, you name it, all the biggest kind of names in the industry here. And we have extreme poverty as well. I think, as someone who grew up low income in the community, I've been shaped by Cambridge in a lot of ways. There's been so many opportunities that I've been able to benefit from because of Cambridge. So, for me, it shapes me, why I do this work, and why I want to help as many people as possible.

NC: Do you think then, living in Cambridge and growing up in the city, you saw a little bit of what's going on around you that colors your own experience as mayor right now? Or do you have any experiences as a person of color that shape your job in Cambridge?

SS: I think all my identities intersect. I'm 33, younger personnel in office. I'm also a legal aid attorney. I identify as South Asian and a woman of color. I’m Muslim as well. All these identities intersect in the work that I do and come up in various ways. I was contacted earlier on, before the pandemic hit, by a bunch of Muslim families who had said, “we went to our principal, we went to our schools, and we voiced concern about not having halal food options at the schools, can you help us?” Because I was there, people could come to me, and I could then advocate on their behalf. So, I think it's important. I always say, you can't be what you can't see. I think it's important to have people who look like you in these halls of government that typically are pretty homogenous and male dominated as well. I think it's important to be in the room and be in the space where the work and the policymaking is happening, so that I can help as many people as I can.

NC: I'm also curious about how exactly you decided to go into public service and government. What exactly does it take for you to be mayor?

SS: In Cambridge, the council has to run first and get elected, and then your colleagues have to choose you as mayor. I was chosen as mayor in January 2020. Really the first election is the big one, where people choose you as councilor, and then the second kind of mini election that you have among your colleagues. For me, my path to public office was developed in a myriad of ways, but I had an interest in public policy. I'm also a legal aid attorney. With that kind of background in constituent services in the broader policy issues, I wanted to kind of take that to the next level. I felt like elected office could combine those things into one area, and it has been the case. It's a lot of constituent services, and I get to do a lot of the policy work. There's a lot of other things associated with being an elected official that you have to be involved in. But because I grew up here, I got involved early on in high school as well when I co-founded a youth council that's been around for 19 years now. That also really impacted me. In the back of my head, I was like, it’d be great to maybe come back and figure out how to do this. There's definitely a big learning curve on how to run for office, because I just had no idea. But I did a training program, I got the support I needed, and I made it on in 2017.

NC: How would you describe the overall state of the city at the moment?

SS: You know, I think we've had challenges like any other city because of COVID. But we are also in a position to be really doing well. I think we made strides since the beginning of the pandemic. I think there's still a lot of unknowns. But I think we have to keep working on different, broader policy issues, like whether it's bringing universal pre-K, or having municipal broadband, or working on really everything we can to mitigate climate change. There are these big, big buckets that you think as policy issue areas that we have still to do a lot of work on. So that's exciting. We're also getting about $65 million from the federal government to use that is a huge opportunity for the city to engage the community on what we can accomplish and help individual people and businesses. I think our businesses and nonprofits are feeling the effects of the pandemic, and will be, for a long time. Whatever we can do to assist them is, I think, a key priority of mine.

NC: Can you talk a little bit more about what you're interested in advocating for, for example, access to affordable housing since that's certainly an issue that many are concerned about?

SS: Yeah, affordable housing is big. This term, I was able to really work on making sure that we are going to preserve the 504 units of the affordable housing where I grew up. Part of it is preserving the housing that we already have and then looking for other opportunities to create more affordable housing. One thing that came up is Lesley University, our neighbor, your neighbor too, is selling a good amount of property. I think that's where the city can definitely work with them and try to purchase some of what they're selling for affordable housing. It's really looking at every single opportunity at our disposal and thinking about what to do with it, whether it's our city owned property and what we can do to other property that comes our way. Access to affordable housing is key. Tenant rights and tenant education is also key. I think we have been really trying to make sure that tenants know their rights, and we've sponsored the Tenants Rights Ordinance and so forth that requires landlords to give specific information to their tenants at the start of a tenancy and if they're going to try to end the tenancy in any way. It's really a multi-prong approach, there's so many tools. The city also needs to think about ways to create more money for affordable housing and to put into the trust. There are different ways that we've done that, increasing that linkage fee, there's a transfer tax that has been discussed. But there's a pronged approach. So affordable housing is on everyone's agenda.

NC: Other than housing equity, are there any other topics that you're especially passionate about?

SS: Yeah, I'm really passionate about the Guaranteed Income Pilot that my office has been leading. It's called Cambridge RISE (Recurring Income for Success and Empowerment). I joined marriage for guaranteed income last October. The pilot has been almost a year’s worth of hard work to get it off the ground. It's going to be providing $500 monthly to 130 single caretakers in Cambridge. That money, the guaranteed income pilot, first was dispersed in September, so we have 18 months. I'm really excited to see where the pilot goes, and also thinking about the American Rescue Plan money, thinking about our larger guaranteed income pilot that we can help more families with. This pilot in Cambridge is one of, I think, almost 50 around the country, so it's really unique. Harvard has played a role, and MIT has played a role in helping fund some of it. It’s been a multi strategy stakeholder approach to the guaranteed income. I'm really excited to continue to work on that next term.

NC: As a Harvard student, I'm curious if you could describe the relationship between Harvard and the greater city of Cambridge.

SS: Harvard plays a big role in our community. I mean, they're one of the largest employers and certainly in this COVID pandemic, they've been called on from the city to do a number of things for the city, and they've delivered. I think there's a larger question about its own internal issues that come up, whether it's things related to the grad student union and others that I stand in solidarity with, to their larger role and relationship with us. I think it's one of those things where we, as a city, have to think about what we want our relationship to be, and I think it's important to be partners as much as possible in the work that we're doing. I was just at an event last week around unveiling the new electric buses that Harvard will use, and I think it's great. These types of things, what Harvard does, will also help the city as a whole to help us meet our goals for climate change and so forth. In all the goals that the university has, the city has. In some respects, we have to partner on a lot of things. Harvard and their expertise do play a role in the city. Then there's a question if there are other things that Harvard could be doing or could be doing better. So that's a conversation where I know other counselors have discussed having in the next term as we think about the pilot agreements and the payment in lieu of taxes and so forth. But I we have to constantly assess our relationship. I will say that my relationship with Harvard, MIT, this term, if there has been anything that there's been an issue about or things that have come up, the university has been very responsive.

NC: Speaking of the relationship between the university and the greater city around it, do you think that there's anything specifically that the overall institution or even the student body should be doing to become better members of the community?

SS: I think, you know, Harvard students are involved in different ways. I think there's always ways to get involved. There's so many of our great nonprofits that we have. I think many of the students become tutors in our schools. I think this partnership with the Cambridge Public Schools is really good, and maybe potentially, could be stronger. I think just getting involved in the community is important. And, you know, coming to City Hall. Some people choose to stay, but even those who are just for four years. I remember when I went to Brown, I would just take the bus and go downtown and visit places. I went to the city hall, I went to the schools, I just loved getting to know the city. I would encourage students to kind of leave that area and go to North Cambridge, go to East Cambridge, go to different parts of the city, and get to know the community, because there's a whole life outside the gates.

NC: Well then, other than your busy job as mayor, are there other things that you'd like to do?

SS: Well, the last 19 months, I haven't been able to do much. As mayor, I'm the Chair of the School Committee, which I didn't mention. As chair of the School Committee, I've been in charge of really leading and steering the school committee through multiple reopenings and so forth. All that to say, I haven't had much time to myself, but I look forward to taking a little break after the election.

NC: Overall, do you have anything you'd like to share about yourself with the audience, maybe about you yourself as a mayor but also as an overall person?

SS: I mean, I really think being a public servant and going into public service is important. As much as it's a hard job, I think we need people who want to help people. I think there are ways to help people in a variety of ways. You can do direct service, you can join campaigns, you can do a lot of different things, but I just encourage folks to think about what life they want and how they want to have an impact on people. For me, it's just that I love being able to be in the community I grew up in and being there as a resource for those who need me. I love doing this work. I'm just very happy doing it as much as it's hard!

Noelle Chung, ‘25, is a reporter for WHRB News. Follow her on Twitter @Noelle_Chung_ . For any questions and news tips, please email news@whrb.org. Tune in to "As We Know It" on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET for more stories like this one.