“My mom has been a cashier at a local market for 20 years. I joke that she’s one of the reasons I got elected, because people love her. My dad used to work two jobs. Now he has one full-time job as a shipping clerk at Neiman Marcus, which is a department store. Both were educated in their respective countries but [when they] got here, things were hard. They wanted their kids to have a better life. … A number of my peers who I grew up with are still living in poverty. … So I feel really privileged growing up the way we did. Now I just want to help people.”
In 1988, Sumbul Siddiqui ’14 JD was born in Karachi, Pakistan. In 2019 she became the first Muslim mayor in Massachusetts history.
In the years between those two events, she and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 2 years old. She grew up in affordable housing in Cambridge, Mass. “I didn’t know that I was low income until middle school or high school, when I realized, ‘Oh, I live in affordable housing,’” she says. “I had my own computer; we had a printer at home. So we just didn’t know. My parents never talked about any of that.”
Siddiqui went through the Cambridge public school system and describes herself as a “very involved high school student” who co-founded a youth council that gave her her first exposure to City Hall and local government.
That youth council is still active. “In student government and youth council, I liked the idea of using your voice to make change,” she says.
After completing her undergraduate studies in public policy at Brown University, Siddiqui did an AmeriCorps fellowship at New Profit, a nonprofit in Cambridge that was “philanthropy based as it relates to social mobility,” she says.
She decided to pursue a law degree and moved to Chicago to attend the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. “I had never used my brain in that way before,” she laughs. “So it was hard. Law school is a challenging time, but I made good friends, did a few great clinics, met some great professors.”
One of those law professors was Len Rubinowitz. “His areas of expertise are social justice and public housing — these important areas,” says Siddiqui. “It came full circle because I took a public interest practicum with him. I loved working with him, and it piqued my interest in doing work in the public interest.”
For his part, Rubinowitz praises Siddiqui’s “intelligence, hard work and resilience,” saying, “I am a great fan of Sumbul’s. I have photos of special alums on my office door, and hers is one of them.”
After earning her law degree, Siddiqui returned home to Cambridge. “Ever since high school, in the back of my head I have always said, one day I want to think about how I could be a city councilor or be in local government,” she says. “But I didn’t know how I was going to get there, so it was not a linear path.”
After various jobs in and out of law firms, Siddiqui found a full-time role at a legal services nonprofit called Northeast Legal Aid that she describes as her “dream job,” helping low-income entrepreneurs with leases, contracts, insurance and more. “We offered free legal services to these entrepreneurs who were mostly people of color trying to start businesses. I helped places like salons and restaurants, and it was good to make sure these clients were protected and weren’t getting taken advantage of.”
After the 2016 presidential election Siddiqui enrolled in a training program called Emerge Massachusetts, which helps women run for public office. “It was a six-month intensive, learning the basics from, ‘What’s your message?’ to ‘How do you fundraise?’ to ‘How do you run a campaign?’” she says. “Then I decided to run in 2017. The rest is history.”
Siddiqui was elected to the Cambridge City Council in her first run. After winning re-election to a second term in 2019 she was selected unanimously as mayor by the other City Councilors. She was selected unanimously again for a second term as mayor in 2021.
Her time as mayor has been dominated in some ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Siddiqui is proud of Cambridge’s response. “In 2020–21 we had a Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund and that raised more than $5 million that went directly to residents,” she says. “I’m also really proud of all the school work that we’ve done. I’m the chair of the school committee and we kept our schools open, and we’ve done it safely.”
Beyond the challenges of pandemic response, Siddiqui says Cambridge is one of the first cities to begin a guaranteed income pilot program. “It’s called Cambridge RISE and we are helping 130 single caretakers get $500 a month,” she says. “The whole goal of these pilots is to demonstrate and have data that shows the federal level and the state level that a guaranteed income — paying people cash — is the right thing to do.”
While Siddiqui is proud of her accomplishments in public office, she is also frank that there is more she wants to do. Closing the achievement gap in the Cambridge public school system is a top priority.
“I would love to see our matriculation rates go up. I’m thinking about free community college and other things,” she says. “One thing I am proud of is that I’ve partnered with Lesley University and the [Cambridge public] schools to do an early college pilot. The whole goal is for Black and brown high school students to benefit from taking classes at Lesley and earn college credit that they can use either at Lesley or a future college. Early college programs like this have been shown to be very successful. … We’re doing the [school] district plan right now for the next few years, and I’d love to be part of a planning process that would lead to better outcomes for our young people.”
As for what a young two-term mayor might be looking to do next?
“People ask, ‘Oh, are you going to run for this or are you going to run for that?’ and I don’t know! I’m the mayor of a city and have gotten a lot of things done and helped people. It’s been such a privilege.”