Every morning when Will MacArthur leaves his dorm, he walks across the Radcliffe Quad and passes his elementary school on his way to class. “I see a structure that I climbed on, a peach tree that I helped to plant, and a crab apple tree that people had crab apple fights with,” he says.
MacArthur spent his entire life in Cambridge, learning in the city’s schools. After graduating, he was admitted to Harvard and decided to stay in the neighborhood. He is one of the few students attending the Massachusetts Ivy who was raised in the diverse neighborhood the elite institution calls home. MacArthur lives a rare Cambridge experience, and he knows it. “It was a little jarring at first. It’s an interesting juxtaposition,” he explains. Overall, he’s glad he stayed in Cambridge and “continue to make a difference in the community [he] grew up in.”
Earlier this year, MacArthur became the youngest candidate to run for a seat on this year's Cambridge School Committee. A 2016 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, MacArthur lost the election to candidates that were, for the most part, twice his age.
MacArthur’s age surprised constituents, at best. Even during the final week of his campaign, an older canvasser who held a "Vote Will MacArthur" sign was mistaken for the candidate.
"I am so sorry!” said the constituent, tinged with embarrassment, “I just assumed that it would be an older white man, obviously. And I just walked up to the wrong Will.”
MacArthur was understanding and laughed at the situation.
At worst, MacArthur said his age was an obstacle in getting voters to take him seriously. Many constituents seemed to take more interest in the novelty, rather than his political platform. “I very rarely mention I’m nineteen,” he said before the election. “That’s not really like a selling point for me. I think my experiences in the schools are.” He said during the campaign his age made it hard to get residents to seriously discuss policy and what they’d like to see change in the schools.
But, he was the only candidate who attended the district within the last decade. “My experiences of the world have been dominated by K-12 education. … I still just feel so connected to the schools. I still have friends who are seniors there,” he adds. Most of his campaign volunteers were still attending district schools, or were recent graduates.
“I also see my age as a blessing,” says MacArthur. He hopes his run set an example for other young people to get involved in elections. Youth turnout in elections is historically low and it’s decreasing. According to the U.S. Census, only 23% of 18- to 24-year-olds showed up to vote for the 2014 congressional elections. That’s down 10 percent from youth turnout in 1978.
The low bar for ballot access appealed to him. “The only qualification for taking office is that you be a registered voter and that you get fifty signatures in support," he said. "It leads to very dynamic local races.”
During his campaign, MacArthur said he “encountered a pervasive view that district improvement is only the responsibility of parents, students, and teachers.” He views a high quality education as a universal human right that is everyone's responsibility. “A lot of people showed up to cast a ballot for city council and didn’t cast one for school committee,” he said. The discrepancy during his election was about 1,700 ballots, according to the Cambridge Election Commission.
Although MacArthur didn’t win a seat on the committee this year, he says he is just as confident with the current group of members holding their elected positions, as he would be with anyone. “Anyone can be an effective member [of the committee] regardless of their age,” he said.
His hope is, however, that this year’s school committee will make an effort to incorporate student voice into policy decisions.
WGBH News' coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.