The president ordered a travel ban. Hate crimes increased across America. And in Wakefield, Mehreen Butt, a 40-year-old public policy attorney and social justice advocate, became the first Muslim-American woman in Massachusetts to be elected to a board of selectmen.
In a town of roughly 26,000 that for generations has been mostly white and predominantly Irish and Italian, voters hardly noticed that they were making history.
“I never heard anyone say, ‘Oh, a Muslim-American woman is running,’” said Ann Santos, 52, a second-term member of the board and a Wakefield native. “It might not have dawned on people.’’
Butt’s warmth, confidence, and interest in people attracted attention. Nobody thought to ask about her race or religion.
Butt, who dresses in pantsuits and doesn’t wear a headscarf, grew up in nearby Lynnfield, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Her father is a retired physician who worked at Lynn Union Hospital for 40 years; her mother was a homemaker and worked in retail after Butt and her younger sister and brother were in school.
Among the fewer than 7 percent of Wakefield residents who are minorities, the largest group — about 2.5 percent — are from Asia, according to the US Census’s American Community Survey five-year estimates for 2012-2016. Diversity in Wakefield has been growing slowly: Strong schools, a walkable downtown, and many social and recreation programs have attracted young families from across Greater Boston, and around the world.
Likewise, newcomers have been drawn to the town’s progressive sensibility: a Human Rights Commission, created three years ago, a class for newcomers called “Wakefield 101,” and annual Christmas tree and menorah lightings held on the town common.
“Not to say that we don’t have issues,” said Stephen Maio, 55, the town administrator and 50-year resident. But people in town “don’t really like intolerance.”
Butt, who is the director of public policy at Rosie’s Place in Boston, the first women’s shelter in the country, said she learned from her parents that wherever you go, you are representing your heritage. When extended family is far away, you create surrogates, which her family found at the Quincy mosque where they spent most Sundays when she and her siblings were growing up.
“It was the basics of religion,” she said. “To be a good person; treat others the way you want to be treated; and help those who need help.”
Until Nov. 18, 2016, no one in Butt’s family had experienced overt harrassment. When it happened it was nighttime, and dark, and Butt’s parents and sister had just left Kohl’s and were walking to their car at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers.
Two men walking past them and yelled out, “You [expletive] immigrants. Go back to your country,” Butt said.
Butt got her start in local politics two years ago in an Emerge Massachusetts class, a national program that trains Democratic women to run for public office.
“At the May 2016 meeting, I was reading the local paper, and I saw there was a special election for a seat on the Board of Selectman,” she said. “I told two friends and within five minutes the entire class was a strategy session for me.”
Soon she was going door to door, introducing herself and reminding residents about the importance of voting.
“You can help the most at the local level,” she told people, peppering her pitch with compelling statistics: 50 percent turnout for national elections; 20 percent to 40 percent for state contests; and 10 to 15 percent at the local level.
“I can’t protect the national parks, but I can protect our lake here,” she said. “I can’t save the criminal justice system, but I can talk to our police department and public safety about diversity, implicit bias. I can’t control behavior, but I can talk to the School Committee about diversity at the local level.”
Neighbors, friends, members of Butt’s book club, and even high school students too young to vote came out to work on her campaign.
“She just showed up to everything. She showed that she cared,” said Maeve Conway, a freshman at Smith College, who was part of a group from the Wakefield High School Democrats.
It was July 2016, when Butt’s first bid, a seven-week campaign, began wrapping up.
It was also Ramadan, a holy month when Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, no food or water, and set aside time for self-reflection and family gatherings.
In the studio at the Wakefield cable access station, soft popping sounds punctuated the air as candidates opened bottles of water, and the contender sitting next to Butt reminded her that if she waited much longer, the pop of her cap would be a distraction.
“I’m fasting,” Butt replied.
Her colleague shrugged, she recalled.
And nothing more was said.
Butt lost the race. But in January, she filed papers again, and last April she won one of two open seats on the Board of Selectmen.
“I didn’t know Mehreen at all,” said Santos, the other female member of the seven-member board. “She has clearly strong opinions, but I like her delivery. If voters feel you are being honest and transparent, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll listen to you, even if they disagree.”
Four months shy of completing her first year, Butt is proud of the board’s accomplishments: a balanced budget and AAA bond rating; thousands of people turning out for the Fourth of July parade, the Festival Italia, and a seasonal farmers’ market; a plastic bag ban; plans in the works to build benches in the downtown and make the streets more inviting to walkers; and the construction of new homes, including over 140 affordable units.
Among other Muslim-American politicians, Andover native Nadeem Mazen is seeking the Third District Congressional post that includes most of the Merrimack Valley. Incumbent Niki Tsongas of Lowell is not running for reelection and Mazen, a two-term city councilor in Cambridge, will join a crowded field in the September Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, the state’s first Muslim-American woman to be elected to a Board of Selectmen is focusing on what’s happening in Wakefield.
“I am super-excited about what the next year is going to bring.”
Hattie Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.