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The New Guard

These 4 newly elected officials are reshaping politics in Boston and Worcester

Tania Fernandes Anderson, Etel Haxhiaj, Ruthzee Louijeune, and Thu Nguyen all broke barriers this year.

From left: Etel Haxhiaj, Tania Fernandes Anderson, Thu Nguyen, and Ruthzee Louijeune were all elected in 2021.

Massachusetts, despite its growing diversity and progressive leanings, has a remarkably poor record when it comes to electing women and people of color to political office. The state has never elected a woman governor; its biggest city, until this year, had exclusively chosen white men to serve as mayor. But, here, as across the country, the face of government is changing to better reflect the diversity of its constituencies. In Massachusetts’ two biggest cities, local government marked some historic firsts this year, with voters electing people from backgrounds that have never been represented in those venues before.

TANIA FERNANDES ANDERSON

Boston City Council

Tania Fernandes Anderson was just 10 years old, with a hard, round, malnourished belly on a skinny body, when she took her first airplane journey from her native Cape Verde to Boston. During the taxi ride from the airport to her new home, the velocity made her vomit, and the buildings all seemed too tall. When she first encountered snow, she ran outside barefoot to greet it, not realizing the unfamiliar substance was cold.

Since those early days, Anderson has learned a lot about the city that felt so foreign at first — its beauty and its ugliness. She lived in public housing and in a shelter. She watched as a friend was shot before her eyes, then fell into her lap. Through her work as an entrepreneur, she promoted the arts in communities of color, opening a boutique and founding a small theater company.

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While working at Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, a nonprofit promoting racial equity for small businesses, she began to see the ways in which Boston zoning laws and other factors made it hard for entrepreneurs to start businesses. The experience piqued her interest in policy making.

This fall, she was elected to the Boston City Council, becoming the body’s first Muslim member and its first African immigrant. Anderson says her background “offers not only knowledge but true understanding and patience,” traits that will serve her well as she seeks to create a more equitable city.

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“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to pave the way,” Anderson says. “It sets the precedent of a new diverse and inclusive government. And I hope to be able to do that in a way where I am just meeting people where they are.”

ETEL HAXHIAJ

Worcester City Council

Growing up in Vlorë, the coastal Albanian city that was at times the epicenter of the nation’s political upheaval, Etel Haxhiaj often found herself mulling the role of government. In the 1990s, after the fall of communism in Albania, she watched as university students in her home city paved the way for democracy, fighting for the idea “that politics is a way to do good for people,” she recalls.

But as a teenager, even as she participated in protests, Haxhiaj — pronounced “ha-jee-eye” — couldn’t imagine a future for herself in elected office. It just wasn’t something women in her country did.

It was only decades later — after fleeing Albania at 17, living for two years without documentation in Greece, winning the green card lottery and arriving in Dallas, then moving to Worcester to study at Clark University — that her vision started to take hold. This past November, in her second run, Haxhiaj was elected to the Worcester City Council, where she’ll be the first Muslim person to serve.

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Haxhiaj’s road to politics was long. Before she launched her first campaign in 2019, she researched “furiously” to find examples of people from historically disenfranchised communities who managed to break into elected office. She watched the 2019 documentary “Knock Down the House,” which follows the congressional campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, over and over for inspiration.

Looking to Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar — one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress — sparked an attitude of “I can do it, too,” she says. When she takes office, Haxhiaj hopes to provide that same inspiration to others.

RUTHZEE LOUIJEUNE

Boston City Council

One day in the fall of 2011, Ruthzee Louijeune walked into Boston City Hall to recount a painful story of discrimination — the night she and her friends, who are Black, had been kicked out of a nightclub, for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin.

A Harvard student at the time, Louijeune had rushed to the hearing between classes. Though it was her first time testifying, she didn’t feel intimidated. Many who experience discrimination, she knew, have neither the time nor the means to call it out. It was important that she try.

“I was just so tired of seeing a Boston that did this,” she recalls.

A decade later, Louijeune is headed back to City Hall after being elected in November to the City Council — but the body’s makeup has radically changed. A council long dominated by white men is now an emblem of the city’s growing diversity.

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In the US city with the third-largest Haitian diaspora, Louijeune will be the council’s first Haitian American. As she campaigned, she felt the warmth of that community, where supporters taught her a new phrase in Haitian Creole: “N’ap voye’w monté,” they said. “We’re going to send you up.” Louijeune hopes to serve that community and others when she takes office.

Louijeune’s election is a testament to the fact that Boston has changed. But the shift is more complicated than it might appear, she says. “People like to say it’s a new Boston. But the stark old-new [paradigm] doesn’t work so well,” Louijeune says. “It’s a Boston that is finally opening its arms to the fullness of itself and the fullness of its residents.”

THU NGUYEN

Worcester City Council

Thu Nguyen did not launch their bid for Worcester City Council thinking about becoming Massachusetts’ first nonbinary elected official. “The root of my run was always about our community,” says Nguyen, who came to the United States with their family as a refugee from Vietnam in 1993. “For me, making history is kind of that extra bonus that happened at the end.”

Growing up in the diverse city of Worcester, Nguyen felt at home; they said they didn’t feel different because there was the sense that everyone was different.

Nguyen decided to run for office during the summer of 2020, when a racial reckoning seized the country after the murder of George Floyd. Nguyen realized they could make a difference through local government, and because they could, they felt it was their “role and duty.”

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Nguyen didn’t think running for Worcester City Council as a nonbinary person “would be a huge deal — because in my life, I’ve always been like this.” They soon learned that mounting a political campaign meant discussing their identity more than they ever had. But often, that was a good thing. “What I noticed was a lot of people really showed up and really cared,” Nguyen says. “It meant a lot to a lot of people in Worcester. Allies were educating others — young folks teaching their parents what it meant to be nonbinary. People would correct other people’s pronouns.”

Nguyen was elected to the council in November. Now, they want to ensure the doors are wide open for everyone. “I wanted to run in a way where folks after me could see that they could be themselves and just run,” Nguyen says. “We don’t have to be a cis white man. We don’t have to come off perfect. . . . You can come as yourself, as your values. You and your life experience actually matter.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.