A strolling antidote to political cynicism

Burhan Azeem ’19 had by no means been to a metropolis council assembly earlier than he confirmed as much as give a public touch upon an affordable-­housing invoice his senior yr. Strolling round Cambridge, he noticed a “younger, dynamic, racially various metropolis,” however when he stepped inside Metropolis Corridor, many of the others who had arrived to current feedback have been retirees reflecting a a lot narrower—and older—demographic.

Lower than a yr later, Azeem got down to shift the steadiness in who will get to make selections on behalf of town by operating for metropolis council himself.

A supplies science and engineering main, Azeem had lengthy been civically engaged, volunteering for Ayanna Pressley’s marketing campaign for the US Congress as a junior. However what actually set him on the trail to native politics was his curiosity about why dwelling in Cambridge is so costly. He’d skilled the issues that come up from a scarcity of entry to reasonably priced housing as a child in New York, and he needed to grasp what was contributing to that drawback within the metropolis the place he’d chosen to stay as an grownup.

He launched his marketing campaign a month earlier than commencement—inspired by Marc McGovern, himself a council member and on the time town’s mayor, whom he’d met whereas campaigning for Pressley. (In Cambridge, the council chooses the mayor from inside its ranks.) Azeem misplaced by 100 votes, however he outperformed a candidate who’d raised greater than $40,000, whereas he himself had raised lower than $7,000. That made him suppose it is likely to be value one other attempt. So in 2021 he ran once more, and he received by 200 votes. At age 24, he was the youngest Cambridge metropolis councilor ever elected. 

He rapidly set to work making an attempt to make Cambridge a greater metropolis, passing payments targeted on housing, transit, and local weather initiatives. These successes set him up not simply to win reelection in November 2023, however to garner extra votes than some other council member however the mayor. 

“We handed quite a lot of coverage—far more than a mean time period,” he says. “What’s cool about metropolis council is that although we don’t have as large a scope as Congress or the state home, now we have absolute energy the place we do have energy. Over our roads and housing zoning coverage, even the president can not inform me what to do. I believe that’s why I’ve had a lot success: I’m very narrowly targeted on the locations the place we are able to make a extremely large change.”

Azeem in front of Cambridge City Hall
Azeem received reelection
in November 2023,
garnering extra votes
than some other council
member however the mayor.

If Azeem didn’t have a mean first time period, possibly it’s as a result of there’s little or no about him that’s common. Along with serving on town council, he’s additionally employed full-time at Tandem, a startup providing pop-up veterinary clinics, a pharmacy, and telehealth for pets that he helped get off the bottom with former classmates from MIT, amongst others. As the corporate’s head of AI engineering, Azeem has led an effort to make use of AI to recommend drugs and is engaged on growing instruments that might probably assist vets with diagnoses. The founding workforce is identical one with which he helped construct DayToDay Well being, a startup that gives digital instruments and stay chat to help human sufferers earlier than and after medical procedures. Having served as an EMT with MIT’s Emergency Medical Companies as an undergrad, Azeem discovered working for DayToDay particularly significant in the course of the pandemic, because it gave him a option to serve his fellow residents when everybody was in lockdown at dwelling. DayToDay scaled from eight individuals to over 400 and was bought simply earlier than Azeem was elected to his first time period.

“He’s like a Swiss Military knife. It doesn’t matter what the problem is—he’s the individual you wish to hold with you.”

Prem Sharma ’18, CEO and cofounder, Tandem and DayToDay

As if that weren’t sufficient, Azeem can also be one of many cofounders and a present board member and treasurer of Plentiful Housing Massachusetts, a nonprofit searching for to deal with the state’s housing scarcity and legacy of housing segregation. The group, which began in 2020 as a bunch of volunteers assembly in an MIT classroom, now has six full-time workers and a million-dollar annual funds. Along with pushing for legal guidelines aimed toward growing the housing provide, it additionally creates instruments and sources to assist grassroots teams benefit from current laws just like the MBTA Communities Act, a zoning reform invoice meant to assist Massachusetts add greater than 280,000 properties close to current public transit.

“I inform him on a regular basis, ‘I don’t understand how you do it,’” says Prem Sharma ’18, CEO and cofounder of Tandem and DayToDay, who’s known as Azeem a coworker and buddy for years. Although Azeem has tons occurring, Sharma insists that he “delivers outcomes” at work and “his output is all the time high quality … he’s certainly one of our high individuals.” 

“He’s like a Swiss Military knife,” Sharma provides. “It doesn’t matter what the problem is—he’s the individual you wish to hold with you.”

Coverage priorities from private expertise

Azeem was born in Multan, Pakistan, and moved to Staten Island, New York, along with his household in 2001, when he was 4. His dad and mom had immigrated after successful the visa lottery, in pursuit of monetary choices that may assist them pay down medical debt that had arisen from his sister’s untimely start. Cash was tight, in order that they moved in with household buddies.

“There have been 11 of us dwelling on this three-bedroom. We have been too many individuals to be authorized, so we might cover out in closets each time the owner came visiting,” he recollects. “We have been very nervous about being caught, which is an enormous purpose I skipped pre-Ok and kindergarten.”

The household moved typically from one place to a different inside Staten Island over the subsequent decade. Although in some methods it was a tricky place to develop up as a Pakistani immigrant child, particularly within the years after 9/11, Azeem considers himself “very fortunate” in that he was naturally gifted sufficient at science and math to get right into a science and know-how highschool. That paved the way in which for him to ultimately attend MIT on a full scholarship.

His expertise rising up “very poor,” as he describes it, has knowledgeable his coverage priorities as an grownup. When he considers what he needs to perform in workplace, he’s in search of issues that may ease the burden of day-to-day life for residents who face the sorts of challenges his household did. These struggles aren’t all simply distant recollections, both—in the midst of his first time period, as he was pushing to cross affordable-housing laws, he bumped into his personal difficulties discovering an condominium he may afford to lease. Whilst somebody with a good wage who was keen to share with roommates, he typically discovered himself competing with upwards of 50 candidates for a single unit in an condominium search course of he describes as “horrific.”

“I’ll do no matter must be completed. I simply don’t wish to waste my life.”

“The best way that I take into consideration politics is by asking: What are the costliest issues for individuals [that I can take on as a city councilor]?” he says. “Primary is housing. Quantity two is little one care. And quantity three is transit. So how can we make these higher?”

Azeem has prioritized payments that handle the entire above, plus local weather coverage, one other problem he cares deeply about. In his first time period, he wrote the invoice that made Cambridge the primary metropolis in New England to abolish the requirement that new development embody a sure variety of parking areas, which may make housing prohibitively costly to construct. He additionally performed a key position in pushing by amendments to an current regulation that pave the way in which for taller buildings to be constructed for reasonably priced housing, amongst different initiatives.

Azeem on the streets of Cambridge
For his second time period,
Azeem has concepts for
payments to enhance public
transit, make streets
safer for all residents,
and enhance entry to
reasonably priced housing.

“I don’t know that he all the time will get a ton of the credit score, however he’s most likely been one of the vital, if not the most, outstanding councilors on quite a lot of the housing points which have been labored on over the past time period,” says Cambridge metropolis supervisor Yi-An Huang, an appointed official who works with town council.

Azeem labored to replace Cambridge’s Constructing Power Use Disclosure Ordinance (BEUDO) in order that it requires giant nonresidential buildings, like these on MIT and Harvard’s campuses, to succeed in internet zero emissions by 2035. He additionally helped cross the “specialised stretch vitality code,” which requires all new development and main renovations to rely fully on electrical energy or be wired to transition to such a system sooner or later, and advocated for the buildout of 25 miles of protected bike lanes within the metropolis. However whereas he’s pushing for extra reasonably priced housing, he’s additionally working to dam a proposal that might ban lab growth in Cambridge. Though its proponents say the ban is supposed to protect house for housing, he says quite a lot of developments embody each lab house and housing, so it’s not one or the opposite. And he sees the analysis that goes on within the metropolis’s labs as important to its financial vibrancy.

He credit his success partly to being “actually good on the boring technical stuff,” as he places it. “I write my very own coverage and I am going by all the main points of the payments,” he says, noting that not each native politician is keen or in a position to do this. “There’s numerous stuff that folks simply don’t take pleasure in doing, and if you will discover a option to take pleasure in it, then there’s numerous work to be completed.”

Huang says Azeem’s tendency to pore over each element makes him stand out, as do his “listening very nicely” and his collaborative strategy. “He’s impressively within the weeds on coverage,” he says. “He does his homework and understands the problems and actually grapples with the nuance.”

A lifetime to go

Although younger persons are infamous for skipping native elections, Azeem sees his expertise as a testomony to the outstanding energy of hyperlocal politics—and to why his friends shouldn’t sit them out. 

“[The city council] has a roughly $1.25 billion funds. Divide that by 9 [council members], and it’s over $100 million per individual. Every of us will get elected on 2,000-ish votes. So it’s nearly $60,000 per vote. That’s your affect,” he says. “I misplaced by 100 votes in my first election and received by 200 in my second. In case you had taken the one that got here in 10th, and changed them with me, greater than 100 million {dollars} would have gone in a distinct path than they did. That’s loopy to consider: 200 residents determined the place $100 million went.”

In his second time period, Azeem hopes to affect the place one other $100 million–plus will go. He already has concepts for payments that he thinks will enhance public transit choices, assist Cambridge combat local weather change whereas adapting to its affect, make it simpler for residents to afford fundamental requirements like housing, and make streets safer for cyclists, pedestrians, and all residents. 

He acknowledges that public service shouldn’t be all the time the simplest option to make as a teenager. Regardless of his outstanding work ethic and ambition, Azeem continues to be a twentysomething who needs to take pleasure in his life. Going out along with his buddies for an evening of dancing could be a bit odd when it ends with individuals approaching him and asking, “Are you my metropolis council member?” He even obtained acknowledged as soon as when he was utilizing a courting app.

From Sharma’s perspective, one of the best ways to grasp Azeem’s seemingly boundless drive is thru the lens of “immigrant psychology,” which Sharma in some ways shares. “After I was beginning this new firm, he needed to affix,” he recollects, “and I used to be like, ‘How will you do all of this? Beginning a brand new firm is demanding. You can not do each that [and be on city council]. He stated, ‘I’ll do no matter must be completed. I simply don’t wish to waste my life.’” 

With reelection within the bag, and with a recent inflow of funding at Tandem, Azeem is discovering himself in a extra secure place than he’s been in for a very long time, which is affording him new house to consider the long run. He’s grateful that he’s been capable of each work in native politics and be a part of two profitable startups, however he is aware of that down the road he could have to decide on one path or the opposite.

He hasn’t determined but which can win out. However what he does know for certain is that he needs to go away a legacy he may be happy with—and he’ll be completely satisfied to let his work communicate for itself.

“Lots of people really feel like they have to be within the highlight as a result of they really feel like they’re the ‘major character,’” he says. “However 5 to 10 years from now, once I’m trying again, I simply wish to see that the issues I did are nonetheless round and having a constructive affect.”

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