By Mike Cullity
Years before he became a Boston city councilor, Felix Arroyo spent two years working three jobs to pay for college. While taking night classes at the University of Massachusetts Boston, he toiled simultaneously as an administrative assistant, a restaurant busboy and a hospital security guard.
Talking with his co-workers, most of whom were much older than Arroyo and also working multiple jobs, spurred him toward a career pursuing economic justice.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is their economic opportunity,'" Arroyo recalls. "'Why should they have to live this life? Why isn’t this job treated with respect and dignity? Why is putting in an honest day’s work not enough to take care of their families?' This experience helped set the stage for what I wanted to do."
Elected last November to a second two-year term as at-large Boston city councilor, Arroyo strives to help those on the economy's fringes. By earning a master's degree in community economic development from SNHU, now available completely online, the 32-year-old politician acquired the tools to effect change.
In His Father’s FootstepsRaised in Boston's working-class Hyde Park neighborhood, Arroyo is the city council's second Latino member. Its first was his father, Felix D. Arroyo, a longtime community activist and organizer who served from 2003 to 2008.
Arroyo's father and mother, Elsa Montano, moved to Boston from Puerto Rico in 1976. Both earned graduate degrees from Harvard, and although Felix’s work was sometimes sporadic, Elsa earned a steady wage as a public school teacher, their son says.
The second of their five children, Arroyo remembers money being tight while growing up.
"My parents made sure we knew there were financial constrictions, but we also always had what we needed," he says.
His parents' community activism first exposed Arroyo to social and economic justice issues. Determined to make money; however, he initially decided to study finance.
"It took me about one semester to realize that wasn’t for me," Arroyo says. "I think I took a class where part of the discussion was how to save money by controlling labor costs, and that didn't seem right to me."
Arroyo gravitated instead to labor studies and left his three-job existence behind when former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner hired him in 2000. Watching his father as a council member and serving as a council aide, Arroyo learned that politics and community organizing go hand in hand.
"That's really the best way in my mind to achieve economic and social justice," he says. "It's the belief that if you bring people together, you can achieve change."
An Education in CEDWhile working as the political director for the Service Employees International Union Local 615 – which represents 18,000 property service workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island – Arroyo began pursuing his SNHU master's degree. The program prepared him particularly well for his eventual work as a city councilor, he says.
"Now more than ever, everybody elected to government should understand economic development," he says. "I feel grateful that I am able to talk about community reinvestment, interest rates and job creation. I am able to work with small business owners to figure out how they can succeed. I learned a lot of those skills at SNHU."
Walking the WalkAs part of his economic justice agenda, Arroyo has introduced a responsible banking ordinance that he hopes the council will pass this year. Under his proposal, known as "Invest in Boston," the city would direct its more than $1 billion in deposits to banks that demonstrate the highest level of local investment.
Arroyo has also devoted himself to youth issues, such as preserving summer jobs slated for elimination in city budgets. Moreover, his concern for Boston’s next generation spills over into his spare time, during which he mentors teens
as a baseball coach.
"Teenagers can make decisions that affect the rest of their lives in those years," Arroyo says. "It isn't just about baseball. It's about being someone they can go to for help and direction."
That Arroyo is equally at ease talking to CEOs and kids on the street is one of the most important qualities he brings to the city council, says Warren Tolman, a Boston attorney and former state legislator.
"He has that ability to engage in thoughtful dialogue and discourse with pretty much everybody out there," says Tolman, a Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor in 2002 for whom Arroyo worked as a field organizer. "And that's not a trait that everyone is gifted with."