A Seat at the Table

As a three-term Holyoke city councilor, Jossie Valentín, MS ’03 has been a passionate advocate for the marginalized and for progressive policies focused on improving the quality of life for her constituents.

As an openly queer Puerto Rican woman in elected office, she has long been a proponent of representation and inclusivity at all levels of government.

When Jossie Valentín’s new position as Massachusetts state director for the Warren for President campaign was first announced in January 2019, it was too early in the process for official titles. Instead, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced Valentín by saying, “We needed one special title for Jossie, because of all the incredible work that she does every day, and because we want everybody to know: if you’ve got a problem, go see Jossie. So, we’re going to call Jossie ‘Top Dog for Massachusetts.’” It is a title Warren has used ever since.

Valentín was born in Connecticut and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, by her mother and her aunt and uncle—all three college professors—who set the standards for success high. “The confidence that I have and the assertiveness that comes with it—that I take opportunities as they come—most definitely comes from growing up in a household with very strong values and a strong work ethic. As I look back, it’s a huge part of who I am today,” she says.

“It isn’t just who is in power, but who is empowering others by their very presence.”
~ Jossie Valentin, MS ’03

Valentín first arrived in Massachusetts as an exchange student from the University of Puerto Rico, spending her junior year at UMass Amherst. Having come out at sixteen, Valentín says she fell in love with Northampton, thanks in large part to the thriving lesbian community she found there. After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Valentín returned to Northampton, where she lived for seven years, working in the field of mental health and substance abuse and earning a master’s in forensic psychology from AIC.

“We were all working full-time, going to school, and using our life and work experiences in the classroom,” Valentín says of her studies at AIC. “It was a positive experience and an opportunity to be with folks who were working in the field. I appreciated being in an environment where I was surrounded by people who were having daily life experiences they could bring into the classroom, which is obviously very different than being in an auditorium in a class with four hundred people.”

While working on her master’s in the evenings, Valentín’s days were spent starting and running Arbor House, a twenty-five-bed substance abuse residential program in Holyoke. During the five years Valentín ran Arbor House, the program served two thousand clients.

Melanie Lapointe first met Valentín as an intern at Arbor House, where she moved up through the ranks to case managing and eventually became a nurse. “Jossie was a great mentor,” Lapointe says. “She’s very supportive and always there to lend an ear or a hand. She was young, but even back then she demonstrated a lot of maturity and wisdom, and an empathy that was unique for someone who didn’t suffer from substance addiction. She ran a tight ship, but it was also a place where people could be themselves and seek her out for guidance.”

Having earned her master’s, Valentín took the position of program director for the Psychiatric Evaluation and Stabilization Unit at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow. But by 2006, she was ready for a change of pace. She became a bilingual senior academic counselor at Holyoke Community College (HCC), where she worked until joining the Warren campaign.

Valentín met her wife, Myriam Quinones, when she started at HCC, and over the last thirteen years, the pair have worked together volunteering on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, door-knocking for candidates, and sharing their passion for community work and activism with their two daughters.

“We approach everything as a team effort,” Valentín says. “Sometimes it means one of us doing something extra when it comes to parenting or what we get involved with, but we always do it as a team. I wouldn’t have been able to do many of the things I’ve done over the last thirteen years if it wasn’t for Myriam’s support.”

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has known Valentín for around fourteen years and in many different capacities: as a board member for the local LGBTQ nonprofit he founded; as a volunteer for his 2011 campaign for mayor, when he ran and won as an openly gay twentytwo- year-old; and as a city councilor.

“She’s made a tremendous difference on the city council,” Morse says. “Jossie’s always been a fierce advocate for the community, always worked to make it a safer place for everyone. She’s been a great partner to work with, a real advocate for progressive policies, and a voice for people who oftentimes don’t have a voice in the council chambers.”

“Being a woman in politics, queer in politics, Puerto Rican in politics, matters.”
~ Jossie Valentín, MS ’03

It was this lack of representation on the city council that first inspired Valentín to run for office. In a city of forty thousand people, around half of whom are Puerto Rican, Holyoke had just three of fifteen council seats occupied by people of Puerto Rican descent before Valentín was elected in 2013.

“It matters who is at the table when it comes to making quality of life decisions and budget issues, when it comes to who is in power. It isn’t just who is in power, but who is empowering others by their very presence,” Valentín says. “For me, since day one, I knew it was going to be important to not just do the work, but to mentor and open the door for others who may not have seen themselves in these places before. So that’s why all three identities are important to me. Being a woman in politics, queer in politics, Puerto Rican in politics, matters. A lot of my work is empowering folks who usually get pushed to the side, and that’s been very rewarding.”

Valentín met Senator Warren early in her work as a city councilor and was quickly impressed with the Senator’s policies and brand of politics. From that point on, Valentín was part of conversations with Warren and her staff whenever there were issues that impacted Latinx and LGBTQ communities. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Valentín says she gained an even deeper appreciation for the senator’s approach to representing her constituents.

“Warren did an amazing job for us in terms of her work as a senator,” Valentín says. “She was an ally and an advocate, even before the hurricane. She was the first to ring the bell in DC about the fiscal crisis on the island.”

Valentín’s role in the Warren campaign extends beyond directing it on the ground in Massachusetts. As a bilingual surrogate, she is often relied on to communicate Warren’s message to Spanish-speaking media outlets, and she is the voice for the national texting program.

If Warren is elected, Valentín would love to join her team in Washington, a move she says the whole family supports. Other plans could include running for office again someday, but Valentín says she has found the experience of working for the candidate, rather than being the candidate, so enjoyable that her career may continue in that direction.

“It’s allowed me the opportunity to continue forming relationships and building bridges with folks, but from a different perspective,” she says. “Who knows, I’m open to all possibilities and seeing what comes next.”

By E.C. Barrett :: photos by Leon Nguyen ’16

View Full Gallery