Project BFF sat down with public policy expert and Wakefield Town Councilor Mehreen Butt to talk about the friendships in her life.
Project BFF: How do your friends feel about your mission/career? How do they support you and your work?
Mehreen: I work in government affairs. I’m actually a lobbyist by training, so my job is to have conversations with people at the State House on state level policy and try to make better laws that help people. I am also an elected official in the town of Wakefield. Both government affairs and politics aren’t something where there’ s a lot of women and not a lot of people understand these fields.
If you watch Parks and Rec or the West Wing, that is what my life is like. I also am an attorney by training, so then people think my life is Law & Order. It’s really not. My life is a lot about relationships, and campaigning, which is really exhausting and non-stop. I love it, but I have to have friends who understand this. There is a great article called You Gotta Have Friends: The Female Buddy System in Politics. It talks about how there are not a lot of women in politics. It was written in 2016 when everyone was really excited for Hillary as the first woman to shatter the glass ceiling. This article talked about not just having other women who have gone through the same thing, but that you really need a political buddy system—you need a finance director who understands what you’re talking about, and a campaign director, and a field director. It is such a niche thing that you have to find people who understand what you’re doing.
I’ve been really lucky. My first job out of law school was actually at the State House, I was not political before—I lived in DC for six years and avoided politics. I got into government when I got a job working on environmental issues at the (Massachusetts) State House. I became friends with people who wanted to help people, through the government lens, and who believed in government.
I made really great friends at my job in 2005 at the State House, and I’ve stayed in that field and have have maintained a lot of those same friendships. I have found people who can support me in doing that because it can be lonely at times—I’m usually the only woman in my council spaces and in my lobbying experiences; I’m usually the only person of color. So, you have to find people to support you and I’ve been really fortunate. I will say I have friends that are teachers or computer scientists or physicians or dentists, and they don’t really know this whole campaign thing, but they have been so eager to help in whichever way they can. Unless you live in Wakefield, you can’t vote for me, but there are others ways they can help. I’ve had friends from all over donate and hold signs and make phone calls for me—that’s the way they show their support.
When I ran for office, I had only lived in Wakefield for three years. I grew up in the next town over, but I didn’t have a big network in town—my parents and siblings didn’t live in my town. So my friends really helped me, and my friends from all over from college in law school would ask about how they could help. I was fortunate to do a training program called Emerge, that trains women to run for office. And I met 24 new friends through that program who understood politics and we all wanted to help each other.
On election day my college roommate from Chicago, said she would do a bunch of calls to remind people to vote. So, she’s calling from Chicago and she gets a woman on the phone: “Hi, I’m calling on behalf of Mehreen. Will you vote for her?” And the woman responds, “I’m in a book club, of course, I’m gonna go vote for her, but…why are you calling me from Chicago?”
So, yes, I think most of my friends are super supportive of my career. And I’ve also made a whole network of friends since working at the State House who just understand this world, because it’s not a world everyone understands. It helps to have some people who get what you go through being an elected official.
The way politics was done, the old-school way was an old boys’ network, and so if you’re not establishment, it’s even lonelier. The way I found to be successful is to make those connections, and reach out to people like me in other towns. In the old way of doing stuff as you just never left your town or met others doing similar jobs. That doesn’t work for women; that’s just not the way that we succeed. I’ve been really deliberate about making connections with other women. Women are about 25% of electeds in Massachusetts, that holds true on a local level, so we’re at 25% and then only 7% are women of color. There are not a lot of us, I count every so often, but I think there are under twenty elected women of color in all of Massachusetts.
Project BFF: Have you ever struggled with friendships? What caused that (if you know)? How did that feel? How did the change how you look at friendships since then?
Mehreen: I think everyone struggles with friendship. People move on, whether they move away, get married or they have kids or just get busier. I think people do struggle. I try to figure out that everyone has different priorities at different times, and just step back.
I’m a big believer that friendships go in waves and they ebb and flow—you’re closer then not as close, people grow apart and then come back together sometimes. Sometimes it ebbs and flows for longer. I think it’s important to just realize that it’s usually not intentional. Both parties are changing, and so the friendship can look different.
I was reading poems by Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet who draws alongside her poetry. She has this one poem that I love, that’s all about how we tend to only hear stories about romantic relationships breaking up and the pain of that, and nobody talks about friendships breaking up and how that’s even more painful. The poem is called “the underrated heartache” and my favorite line is:
they did not tell me it would hurt like this/no one warned me/about the heartbreak we experience with friends/ where are the albums i thought
I’ve had friendships that ended that were tougher, but I always think about that ebb and flow. I’ve reconnected with some folks who for years, we just didn’t really talk and they come back into my life. I think it’s knowing that people have different priorities, and it’s not usually intentional. And I think you are supposed to grow and get different friends…I actually think that’s healthy.
I definitely feel like there are more conversations probably now about what it means to be a good friend. I didn’t have those conversations when I was younger.
On time, I was part of a legal panel giving advice to younger attorneys and we had this “Ask Us Anything” panel. A young man right out of law school asked, “How do you network?” It was such a weird question. I remember all the panelists were trying to figure out what he meant?, “What do you mean? You go to an event and shake someone’s hand and hand them your business card.” I was thinking about it…he was probably someone who doesn’t make friends easily, and he was saying it was a little difficult for him. Because networking is a layer of friendship, as are colleagues in a professional setting. So it was actually an interesting question, because I don’t think most of us in the room had really thought about: What are the steps? I think all of us on the panel just did it intuitively. And he was looking to know how to make connections like we easily did. Making friends as adults feels like networking at times. Finding those similarities and hopefully making those connections.
Project BFF: Tell us a memorable experience with a friend when you were younger. Why has that always stuck with you.
Mehreen: I was really fortunate in how my parents raised us. We are Muslim and both my parents immigrated from Pakistan. There were not a lot of other Muslims or Paskistani families where we grew up. And at the time, there was only one mosque in New England . Every Sunday for my entire childhood, my parents drove us to Quincy. We would drive about 45 minutes each way to be with other Muslims. The kids would have classes and the adults would socialize would have classes and That mosque is where we went for our holidays, so it was a place of celebration and festivities.
I developed these intense friendships with these people who I only saw once a week, but they were such great friendships because most of us were coming from towns and schools where we were the only ones—the only Muslim, the only kid of immigrants. Our parents ate different food and spoke with accents, and then on Sundays, that was all accepted. I was friends with kids whose parents were from Albania, Nigeria, Trinidad, India. No one questioned our clothes and nobody made fun of what we ate or our different heritages. I’m so grateful for that opportunity. In those moments, it was such acceptance, which I think we were all craving so much because we didn’t talk about this stuff Monday to Friday. We didn’t talk about our holidays or what was different about us. And on Sunday it was celebrated. I’m really thankful my parents gave me that experience.
My friends knew I was Muslim, they loved eating my parents’ home cooked food and they understood when I wore different outfits. I was fine in school, but there were probably people who are bullied in school, and then just to know on Sundays that they could have an alter ego. They were the cool ones playing basketball, or they were the friendly one, or they won their youth group election, or they did the face painting at the cultural fair. They were accepted and their differences were celebrated.
This was before social media and email. I never talked to these people during the week, but on Sunday, we were like best friends. We knew what grades people were in, but had no idea what sports they played or what subjects they were good at. It was almost a camp-like experience where you got to make a new identity. And we were all in it together. I stopped going to Sunday school in high school because I got busy. Some of those friends I never lost touch with. When I moved back to Boston after law school and reconnected with some others on social media—as adults, I found some really great people. We still joke about some of the teachers we had or some of the other kids who attended. It’s wild to think of them as functioning adults in society.
Project BFF: If you could be friends with one historical (no longer living) or fictional woman, who would that be? Why?
Mehreen: I’d like to meet my two grandmothers. I knew one of them—I vividly remember sitting in the kitchen and drinking tea with her. Just to sit and drink tea with my grandmothers, I think I’d enjoy that.
Project BFF: If you could be friends with one famous woman (alive now), who would that be? Why?
Mehreen: I want to be a part of the Squad (Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar). Just the way they’ve got each other’s backs and help each other out is exactly what I’m talking about—women of color and politics meeting, lifting each other up as you move along. I knew Ayanna before she was a Congress person, and I adore her. These are absolutely amazing women, each for their own reasons. Then all of them together—it’s so powerful. Add to that Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris. I’m a political being, and those women are my idea of just being really great friends. I think about Kamala Harris—she had her sorority sisters at her inauguration. These are friendships that she’s carried for 30 years. And they were just so proud of her.
Project BFF: What advice would you give your 12-year old self about making friends throughout your life? Your 21-year old self?
Mehreen: I have learned as I’ve gotten older, just to be more intentional about the friends I make. I try to find diverse friends, and that means race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, people with different immigration status and different sexual identities. I think that’s just really important. In the type of work I do, I always say the best policy is when you have different viewpoints. And I think we are each the best version of ourselves when we surround ourselves with diversity.
I think there are moments when you’re trying to find friends and find your community. As we get older, it’s like you join a book club or you a hiking group, you find it through activities or through work. But I think there are moments where you just to be intentional about finding friendship. That’s what I would tell my younger self: be intentional about finding other friends.
Mehreen N. Butt, Esq. is an attorney living in Wakefield, MA. Mehreen was elected to the Wakefield Board of Selectman in April 2017, becoming the first Muslim-American woman elected to a Board in Massachusetts. In April 2018, Wakefield voted to officially change the name to a gender- neutral name and became Wakefield Town Council. Councilor Butt was re-elected in June 2020.
Ms. Butt has over 16 years working in the social justice and public policy fields and on local, state and federal campaigns. She has worked on health care, poverty, women’s reproductive rights and immigrant and voting reform. Ms. Butt has worked at Rosie’s Place, Tufts Health Plan and Health Care for All. In these positions, Ms. Butt was responsible for overseeing the policy and legislative agenda of the organizations. Ms. Butt was also a Researcher for the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture at the Massachusetts State House, working for Chairman Frank Smizik (D-Brookline).
Ms. Butt received a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law and a B.S. in Biology and English from Tufts University. In 2019, she received the Women’s Bar Association’s Emerging Women Leader Award. She is also a Board Trustee for MelroseWakefield Health Care, an advisory member of the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston, an elected member of the Democratic State Committee where she co-chairs the Women’s Outreach Subcommittee and an associate member of the Wakefield Alliance Against Violence (WAAV). Ms. Butt is a member of the New England Muslim Bar Association and an alumnae of both Emerge Massachusetts and the Woman’s Bar Association Women’s Leadership Program.