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Worcester community activist on being first openly nonbinary person elected in Mass.

Thu Nguyen won an at-large seat on the Worcester City Council last week and will take on the new role in January, becoming the first openly non-binary person elected in Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Thu Nguyen)
Thu Nguyen won an at-large seat on the Worcester City Council last week and will take on the new role in January, becoming the first openly non-binary person elected in Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Thu Nguyen)

A Worcester community activist will make history this winter when they become the first openly nonbinary person to take office in Massachusetts.

Thu Nguyen won an at-large seat on the Worcester City Council last week and will take on the new role in January.

Nguyen says they ran for office not as “the nonbinary candidate,” but rather as “a candidate who happens to be nonbinary.” They are also the first Southeast Asian American elected to office in Worcester.

Nguyen hopes their win will motivate others from underrepresented groups to run for office.

“That was one of my pushes, is that people who often feel marginalized or, you know, not having access to the government or imagining themselves at these seats, to actually start doing that,” Nguyen says. “Because that’s how we make shifts. Before you could get to a seat, you have to imagine yourself there.”

The councilor-elect spoke with WBUR’s Morning Edition host Rupa Shenoy about their campaign experience and city hall priorities moving forward.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how it feels to be making history:

“I feel one, fantastic and really, enjoyment, of our community’s achievement, because I never really thought of this win as just about me. I think it was a grassroots campaign for the people, by the people. I ran with a platform that really pushed for community-led solutions at the forefront of city hall, and I think our community spoke. And as for making history, I think it’s a little bit surreal, because I came in doing this for wanting change, and not just … having identities — which is really important. It’s lifesaving to have representation. But I never really anticipated being in history or having a historical moment. And so I’m still breathing that in.”

On reaction to their victory:

“It’s been phenomenal. I think people really feel validated, and I think people feel like this is the moment. I think we’re at a time in history where things are changing. People want to be reflected in their local government, their state and national government. And so when they saw the win, I think it just blew up, to be quite honest. And like I mentioned, I wasn’t anticipating it to be historical like this. … I just feel really amazed that people are seeing themselves in the government. … That was my push for young folks, that was my push for Southeast Asian, queer folks, that we actually deserve these seats and we can win. It was amazing to see it happen.”

On not running as “the nonbinary candidate,” but rather “a candidate who happens to be nonbinary”:

“I’ve been doing community work for over a decade and youth work for the last 10 years, so I was already entrenched in the community. I think a lot of people already knew me and knew my identities. I’ve been always unapologetic with who I am. And so I think it just happens I am nonbinary — and I think that’s the beautiful piece — is that we want to start looking at individuals holistically, right? And I think the perspective that I bring as a nonbinary person, as a Vietnamese refugee, as a community organizer, is what really brings in the whole piece of why I was elected.”

On whether they had to answer questions and educate voters about what it means to be nonbinary:

“I definitely did, and I was actually really impressed and shocked. As a queer person, imagining what it would look like to door-knock, I was actually kind of nervous. Like, I might get a lot of pushback or a lot of hatred and stuff, and I feel like, you know, there was some of that. I think we have a lot more growing to do. But more [often] than not, I saw people — even elders — changing how they said my pronoun. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing for us to start making these shifts for each other, and to really pay attention on how we treat each other. And so I was really amazed. I think I got way more positive … feedback and connection than, you know, the negative.”

On their primary issues on the city council:

“One of the huge things in Worcester that everyone is talking about is housing. We have a housing crisis, and I think we really need to tackle that in a way that really sets us up for the next few decades and not just the next few years. I think we need to talk about the ways in which our city … is being developed. Gentrification is a real thing. And I think development is OK; I think everyone wants Worcester to be a vibrant and beautiful city. I think it’s, ‘How do we really parallel it in a way where community is part of the process, and that it benefits all residents in Worcester?’

“One other thing is an honest, transparent and accessible government. I think that is something we have to embody. That’s something where we as councilors have to really extend ourselves and really reach our hands to people who haven’t felt OK or safe in the local government, and people who didn’t know how to vote. I had people who voted for the president and didn’t know … where their polling location was. And so I think really creating a space where people could continue to engage with our government is important, because that’s what a democracy is.

“Community-led solutions is something that I’m going to stick by, which means having a lot of conversations with people. And that’s what I intend to do for the next one or two months, is really just start connecting and have large meetings to be like, ‘Now that you have elected me, how can I show up for you?’ ”

On whether they hope their success will motivate other underrepresented groups to run for office in Worcester or elsewhere:

“Actually, that was kind of my plan when I was running. I was running out of time when I think, you know, the pandemic was happening, there was a racial reckoning in the summer [of 2020], and I was feeling a little bit hopeless. And I felt like, I work with youth, and they were also hopeless. And I felt like, as someone who accumulated some power and privilege — from refugee to college-educated, to being a director to being someone in the community seen as a leader — that meant I had the duty to reflect and represent our community, and that’s why I decided to run. I hope that people can once again see themselves in the government and believe and imagine themselves here. And that’s how we make change.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR

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