Mayor Lisa Wong leads with grace under pressure
By Ling-Mei Wong
It’s hard to believe now, but Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong was voted second-most bashful in high school.
“Now I speak all the time publicly,” Wong said. Today, the first Asian American mayor in Massachusetts speaks with confidence and poise: making eye contact, holding her chin up and smiling warmly.
“For politics, you have to be comfortable being the center of attention,” Wong said, who is also the first female Asian American mayor in Massachusetts. “You need to be comfortable with opponents. Sometimes that means being very aggressive. Those are not skills that come naturally.”
Wong was just 28 when she was elected as mayor in 2007. Leverett Wing, vice chair of the Asian American Commission, admires Wong’s work over three terms. “She’s done an incredible job,” he said at an Asian American Heritage Month event on May 1. “She’s lowered crime, led conservation and consolidated 28 city departments into 10.”
The youngest of three children, Wong’s parents came from Hong Kong so their children could have new opportunities and a quality education.
“My family was supportive, that I give back to the community and pursue a career I was passionate about,” she said. “They wanted to make sure I was happy and not just do what everybody else was doing.”
Her father opened the Hong Kong Kitchen in Haverhill, Mass., where he helped patrons unfamiliar with Chinese food order mouthwatering meals. “People loved that,” Wong said. “When I have a new type of cuisine, I actually want to go try something new, so I appreciate having someone help me out.”
As a child, Wong would go to Chinese bakeries with her parents, where she and her two brothers could order one thing each. To this day, Wong loves to show people around Boston’s Chinatown and have them try something new at a Chinese bakery.
Wong enjoyed baseball as the only girl in her league, along with playing other sports such as swimming and tennis. Fitchburg children can benefit from exercise as well, thanks to more athletic programs, increased arts after school and strengthened academics — Wong’s proudest achievement as a mayor.
“It’s our collective responsibility to raise kids to be healthy and productive, not just teach kids to pass a test,” she said.
Wong describes herself as “holistic.” Rather than tackling an isolated problem, she tries to understand what created it in the first place and address the root causes.
When she set out to improve education for Fitchburg’s children, she wanted to boost their self-confidence, up MCAS scores and reduce obesity. Her efforts involved more than 80 community partners. In the first school year from 2011 to 2012, 500 fewer children were obese, adding years to their lives and enabling them to achieve even greater goals.
“Everyone is doing just a little bit to create big outcomes,” Wong said.
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