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Ushering New Representation to Western Massachusetts: A Conversation with Massachusetts State Representative Shirley Arriaga

Image via the Massachusetts State Legislature

Shirley Arriaga currently serves as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the 8th Hampden district and is a Co-Chair of the Massachusetts Future Caucus. She was first elected in November 2022 and assumed office on January 4, 2023. Prior to being elected to the 8th district, she served in the US Air Force from 2010 to 2020 and also served as Representative Richard Neal’s Veterans’ Liaison. She holds an associate degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences from Springfield Technical Community College, a Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies and a paralegal certificate from Elms College, an associate degree in Aerospace, Aeronautical, and Astronautical Engineering from the Community College of the Air Force, and a Master of Laws from the Western New England University School of Law. Representative Arriaga currently lives in Chicopee, Massachusetts with her daughter Winter.

Alexander Delaney: Representative Arriaga, first off, congratulations again on winning your election to the Massachusetts State House. You successfully won your first-ever political race by a 2-1 margin against a well-known city official and replicated this margin once more in the general election. Why do you think the people of Chicopee backed you so overwhelmingly, and were there any particular moments in your campaign that stood out to you? 

Representative Shirley B. Arriaga: Yeah, that was a good overview of how I became the state representative here in the 8th Hampden district. So let me tell you, it was a lot of work. I knocked on 21,000 doors personally, and I had some volunteers come out and knock on 5,000 doors as well. So for the team, that was 26,000 doors in total. And that was from February to November. Why do I believe that I had such a large and overwhelming support from my community? I would say it is very simple. I took the time not only to introduce myself to my community but also to listen and learn about their concerns. Our elected officials are here to represent us and the best interests of our community. And when you advocate for others, they see that. And I guess my community saw that I was genuine, that I was actually going to get the job done, and that I was going to advocate for what truly mattered to them. I think that’s why we had such a large margin of support, and I’m just tremendously humbled to have their support.

AD: What issues do you think are affecting Chicopee residents the most today? And, in particular, what were the most surprising answers that you received? 

SA: Well, to no surprise, it’s affordability here in Massachusetts. Across the Commonwealth, the cost of living is just incredibly high. Everything from eggs to our light bills to our gas heating is a real concern. Folks were worried that the continued increase in inflation was going to have a large impact on them. And a lot of folks were worried that they weren’t going to be able to remain housed because property taxes have increased as well. A lot of seniors and folks who are on fixed incomes were anxious and didn’t know how they were going to survive the next year in their homes. A lot of them have lived here for over 30 years, if not their entire lives. I think that affordability matters to every single neighborhood. It is impacting all families.

Second, it’s public safety. We, for some unfortunate reason, have had a lot of incidents lately. And lately, I mean, for the past 15 months, we’ve consistently had terrible motor vehicle accidents, whether it’s motor vehicle on motor vehicle or pedestrian on motor vehicle, leading to fatalities. So public safety—and folks describe that in different ways. They complain about the speeding and the lack of patrolmen. They don’t see enough patrolmen on duty. So public safety was a concern. 

And I think whether it’s gas or electric heat, a lot of families–from our seniors to our families with children–were very concerned and honestly said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I don’t know how we’re going to heat our homes.” So affording to heat our homes is another real concern our community faces. 

AD: In your run for the seat, you put a strong emphasis on your background in military service. You honorably served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan as a part of the Air Force. You eventually worked for Congressman Richard Neal as Veterans’ Director. How exactly has your background in the military shaped your policymaking in the State House? And what, specifically, will you do to protect veterans and service members through your position? 

SA: Well, I’m happy to report that I was assigned to the Veterans and Federal Affairs Committee. I will be advocating for these issues and primarily for our veteran communities that unfortunately have a high need that is not being addressed right now. We need to first and foremost bring these issues to light. A lot of folks think of military members and veterans, and they just assume that our government—our communities—are taking care of them. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. So there’s a lot of work to be done with that. I have filed several bills, like legislation back in January regarding veterans and how we need to be there for them and address these issues that have been around for a while. They’re not new this year; they’ve been around. But unfortunately, no one has taken the time or made it a priority to advocate for these issues that are impacting our veteran community.

So of course, I said, “I am the person to do it. How can I be of help?” I’m hoping to push legislation forward in order to ensure that our veterans are taken care of. Some of these things, to me, just boggle my mind. Why do we need to write this into law? Shouldn’t this already just be, right? Some of these are common sense. However, I learned a long time ago that in the military, common sense is not common. And we need to make sure that the statute is written clearly so that our veterans are protected. So I’m definitely working on that.

I believe that my time in the service has of course prepared me for this, because this is a rollercoaster. This is definitely a highly demanding position, which I’m happy to do. I think the military has trained me for it very well. Those restless nights, the 27 hours on the aircraft without sleep crossing time zones, and being exhausted all the time, but still having to get up and do the job, definitely prepared me for this because I know that it’s going to be a long journey. It’s not a sprint. 

I need to be able to pace myself and, even when I’m exhausted, I know that I have it in me to get up and do the work because my community depends on me. Just like in the military, my mission was first and foremost, regardless of how I felt, regardless of any injuries. Regardless of sleep, the mission came first. So this is the mission now. The mission is my community. So I think just that those 10 years, it was a wonderful 10 years of training and exhaustion and discipline. Discipline prepared me for this because you have to be disciplined and you have to stay focused. And at the same time, there’s a lot that goes on at the State House and keeping your priorities straight and not swaying from them. Right? Because folks are going to try to pull you in different directions, for their benefit and their interest, but staying true is having integrity. It is what the military is all about: discipline, integrity, and service before self. So I feel very prepared. And that’s one of the questions a lot of folks did ask me. “How do you feel? Are you scared? Are you nervous?” And I wasn’t and I’m not. They said to me, “Wow, it’s a new world, you know? How are you so calm?” And I guess it’s because of my military training. I’ve been preparing for this for years. 

And if I can serve in our country for 10 years and do all the wonderful things that I was able to do, I most definitely can sit here and advocate for my community. I think this is actually easier than some of the things I’ve done in the military. So I think I’m well prepared for it and I have the discipline to get it through.

AD: Western Massachusetts is a rather vast region, and in terms of representation, at times many residents feel left out by the populous eastern half of our state. Following the East-West passenger rail study, Governor Maura Healey designated $12.5 million to begin construction and planning of the rail in hopes of eventual completion, with stops in Springfield and Palmer among others. Do you think the East-West Rail would be a good investment to connect the state and, knowing your background in the State House, do you think it’s politically feasible? 

SA: I definitely support the East-West Rail. I’ve been aware of it for years now. It’s been a conversation. I know Congressman Neal has been advocating for this since I was at his office back in 2015. This was already a conversation, so I’ve known about this for eight years now. It is definitely a project that will benefit the Commonwealth, but specifically Western Massachusetts, given the new opportunities to connect with the eastern side of the state in an easier and faster manner. Additionally, it would allow folks to have jobs on either side of the state and reside in Western Massachusetts because it’s more affordable than the rest of the state, which will bring folks here.

It’s going to help our economy, and at the same time, it will retain folks. Right now we’re having difficulty not only retaining but bringing in folks to come to not only the Commonwealth but to Western Massachusetts and plant their roots here. Transportation—having feasible, reliable, environmentally friendly transportation—is key for any economy. And it is going to benefit our great side of the state. It’s going to bring jobs. It’s going to create opportunities, and hopefully, folks are going to remain here. Massachusetts is a great place to live. But we need to do better with transportation. We need to do better in different categories in order to keep folks here.

And I do believe that it’s going to happen. I think we’ve been promoting the message that it’s going to benefit the entire state. And that includes Western Massachusetts. A lot of folks are focused centrally on Boston. And if it’s not benefiting the eastern side, a lot of folks don’t see it as a must or a priority. However, this is going to benefit the state overall, especially right now in this housing crisis. This will help folks take those opportunities and risks and live in whatever side of the state they need to but still have those jobs they really want to have. So if we want to help our economy and our population, we need to invest in transportation and in the economy here.

AD: Going into the State House, you are going to bring in a unique perspective by being a millennial, a veteran, a woman of color, and an educator, among the many other attributes that have shaped your life experiences. Why exactly do you think representation like yours matters? And how do you hope to represent these communities in the State House? 

SA: Well, that sounds like a lot, right? I think it’s definitely needed. We have ever-growing diversity in our Commonwealth and here in our district. And we need to have that representation so we can make sure that all the issues that are impacting the entire community, not just one segment or one population, are being heard and addressed at the State House. So that’s important. But most importantly, it’s also visibility, that our representation does matter. That our representation should look like the communities they represent. At the same time who’s really paying attention to this? And that is our youth. Our youth who are going to go into the workforce, who are going to be our leaders in the future. They need to see that representation. Diversity in representation, whether it’s having a woman for the first time, whether it’s a person of color, whether it’s a veteran who can relate to veterans’ issues, whether there’s a millennial who can understand the different challenges that millennials are facing versus others. It brings perspective because we want to encourage folks to go after their goals and dreams. 

But we also need to let them know that representation is possible and it’s feasible and within their reach. When you don’t see this, you start to just think that it’s not a goal that you can attain. And we do not want to discourage our youth. We want to encourage them to dream and chase their dreams and their goals. And well, if they don’t have that diversity or representation, not only they can not visibly see themselves, but who’s going to advocate for all of the different issues that are impacting them? Well, they’re not going to have the tools to get there in the future, whether it is investing more in schools, investing in transportation, investing in more affordable, friendly communities and parks. And the list goes on and on. These things need to be addressed and we need to make sure that we are investing in these things now. And that diversity and representation is what’s going to bring these issues to the forefront. Because if you think about it, every individual person has their own way of seeing the world. This is what makes us unique. But if you can’t see that there are needs in so many different ways, how are you going to address those issues to come up with solutions? Representation is warranted and needed. And our community was definitely in favor of it. We said we need it. And thus I am here and I’m hopeful that I can bring all of the different perspectives from my lived experiences to the State House. I was an educator. I served in the military. I’m a mom and I’m also a woman.

I’m also a millennial, so I understand that now a lot of learning is done on computers and iPads. A lot of folks think we were just playing on our devices, but now this is the way of the world. I understand that there’s a need to invest in technology and in our schools. These different perspectives are critical and are needed for our economy and our future. So representation definitely matters. And let’s not forget that children are watching, and we need to set a good example for them.

AD: Within your extensive career in the community, what exactly motivated you to run for office, and what would you recommend to today’’ youth who want to get involved in political processes?

SA: I knew at an early age that I wanted to get involved in politics because I wanted to work on the rules that impact everyone’s lives, whether it’s to help them or get them involved in activities in our community. Working with the law was always the goal; I just didn’t know exactly when that was going to happen. I thought I was going to be a whole lot older before I entered the political realm. However, you plan for life and then life happens. Covid-19 came and kind of highlighted the fact that we have a lot of discrepancies in our community and a lot of things that need to be worked on. 

I decided I wanted to take a break from the military and focus a little bit more on being a mom. I was in the military and I was traveling a lot. That’s what my job entailed in the military. So I wanted to stay home and focus on my community and see how things could change for the better. I grew up here in Chicopee and not a lot has changed since I was a child. And that’s not a good thing. I didn’t see diversity and representation. I didn’t see women. Whenever I drove by city hall on my way to high school, I’d wonder, “Why don’t I see women? When will we have a woman governor, a woman mayor?” Those questions were always in my head. Fast forward, I’m going to take a break from the military and want to focus on building my community. I’m looking at my community and saying, not much has changed. Things should improve over the course of my lifetime, nevermind how many other folks have been living here for 60, 70, 80 years.

And I as a mom—an active mom who cares about education—saw that our children’s education was not being prioritized. And that really didn’t sit well with me. I’m an active learner and I’m always challenging my child. I want what’s best for her, as I want what is best for all children. I know my daughter has an advocate on her side. Whether she wants it or not, Mom is going to be involved, because I care. But other children need that as well. A lot of parents sometimes can’t be super involved, for one reason or another. They’re busy trying to do two jobs. There’s Covid-19, there’s no daycare. They’re trying to make ends meet. They’re doing what they can. So they really don’t have the bandwidth to say, “Hey, what’s going on with this learning this year? I don’t feel like my child is being challenged.” We get caught up in life, but someone needs to be speaking up regarding these issues.

Maybe because I’m a younger mom, maybe because I’m a millennial, but I saw that our community and our leadership here weren’t taking that as seriously as they should. So I decided that it was time to get involved. I considered running for the school committee, but quickly realized that the problem goes a whole lot higher because it’s not just the school committee. The city council and the mayor could do so much more but they weren’t; they were very hands off and I did not like that. So I decided to pull papers for the at-large city council seat, and I went up against folks who were in office for 20-plus years. I ran a two-and-a-half-month sprint, and I did not secure a seat by 1 percent. My community told me, “Don’t feel discouraged, you did great, kid, go get them next time.” And I said, “I’m not discouraged, because if anything, it showed that my community was embracing change, they wanted change.” For a first-time runner to get that many votes in that short amount of time with no name recognition—I think that was a win for me.

Fast forward two months later, the representative who is in charge of advocating for funding and making sure that we’re taken care of and our issues are heard in Boston and Beacon Hill said he was done after nearly 32 years of service. And I got those calls from my constituents saying, “Are you running? Are you going to be our new advocate? Are you going to make sure that we’re taken care of?” I had to quickly think about it, but I said, “If I don’t do it then who will?” Who else is going to go to bat and ensure that all of the issues, all these diverse issues are represented and are advocated for over there in Beacon Hill? And unfortunately, I did not see anyone that I could stand behind, so I said, “It has to be me. It can’t be anyone else. I would be doing a disservice to my community if I don’t run.” So I decided to run. I pulled papers in February, I knocked on 21,000 doors, and I am the new state representative for the first time in three decades. The first woman, the first person of color, so a lot of firsts.

AD: Finally, is there any message that you have for your constituents? 

SA: Absolutely. I am here for my constituents and I’m here for my community. And I’m sure they know that, but every time I see them, I tell them, “Don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I am here to help.” And I can’t do this job alone, I need my community with me. They remind me of issues that are present in our community and what I need to do and must do to deliver for them. So I thank them for the support, and I’d tell them to continue to stay in touch and know that I’m here for them. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.