After being elected to the Chicopee City Council, this alumna is making sure all voices are heard.
By Jeffrey Martin, photos by Leon Nguyen '16
C hicopee is known as the crossroads of New England,” says City Councilor Mary-Elizabeth Pniak-Costello, MS ’84, MPA ’88, the nickname stemming from where the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91 intersect. After a historic election, the city itself is facing a crossroads of its own. For the first time in nearly twenty years, the Chicopee City Council has female representation. In 2021, Pniak-Costello and her colleague Delmarina Lopez were the first women to be elected to the city council since 2005—when Lopez was just in fifth grade. Lopez is also the first woman of color to ever be elected to the city council. This overdue fresh perspective comes at a pivotal time for Chicopee.
Councilor Pniak-Costello is trying to figure out what her constituents in the Fairview section of the city require to transition out of the pandemic into something that resembles normalcy. She is no stranger to serving in public office. After serving on the Chicopee School Committee for nearly a quarter of a century, the Planning Board for seventeen years (with eleven as chairperson), and the Council on Aging for sixteen years (and leading as the chairperson for two years), Pniak-Costello’s peers pushed her to run for the city council when the councilor for Ward 9 announced he wouldn’t be seeking another term. This was a chance for Councilor Pniak-Costello to address what she’s most passionate about: education.
“People said to me, ‘Why don’t you run and if you get elected, you can continue your advocacy for not only your constituents and their needs, but also for the students and the teachers?’” Councilor Pniak-Costello was elected to the city’s school committee back in 1997, so she is well aware of the state of Chicopee schools. The first concern she plans to address is the emotional and social needs of students in light of the pandemic. Another is lost learning time, which the councilor traces back to the transition to remote learning in March 2020. “Some students adjusted well. Some did not,” noting that younger students between kindergarten and second grade had a tougher time since “they didn’t have the physical ability to do work by remote learning.”
Pniak-Costello understands the importance of receiving a quality education. At the beginning of her career, she was a probation officer for the Massachusetts trial courts and she wanted to strengthen her skills and understanding of the people she supervised. She enrolled at AIC to pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice and graduated in 1984. Eventually, she got involved with the late and honorable Robert Kumor’s mayoral campaign in Chicopee. He asked her to serve on both the Planning Board and the Council on Aging, which made her think about her long-term plans in politics. This pushed her to return to the College to earn her second master’s degree, this time in public administration. Councilor Pniak-Costello found her experience at the College to be highly beneficial, saying, “[The instructors] were absolutely tremendous and they were understanding. We learned a lot as the class of 1988.” She was already moving her career along, but the councilor wanted to prepare herself for achieving long-term goals. “I felt that would be a help to me as far as being a Planning Board member at the time, being a Council on Aging member at the time, and also for future aspirations to run for political office.”
Having women and people of color participate and be elected officials makes government stronger.
This decision paid off in the long run. When you combine that with her experience of serving in public office, her lifelong commitment to Chicopee, and the new perspective she brings to the city council, you can frame her ambitions for the city in one word: innovation. She hopes to shake things up in the city’s downtown area— and compares her goals to nearby Easthampton’s recent revitalization—with new businesses and activities. “We have to do the same. We have to draw people downtown and say, ‘Hey, look what you can do, look at these restaurants, look at these shops,’” an area where the city councilor sees a lot of untapped potential. Councilor Pniak-Costello says the city needs to give a reason for people to come check out the downtown area, pointing to a proposal that’s been in the works for a long time. Chicopee received a grant in December of 2021 to give entrepreneurs a space to work in the city’s old library. At one point, that very same building was supposed to become a museum. Then it was intended to be transformed into a restaurant. Then an office space. No matter its purpose, the councilor just wants to see something new in the city that will not only stay, but bring other people to Chicopee, with hopes of them returning.
Councilor Pniak-Costello hopes that this wave of change won’t be limited to just the downtown area—or even just Massachusetts. “How can we as a city, and maybe as a nation, get more young women, middle-aged women, and older women involved in the political process? Women’s voices should be heard, diversity is important,” the councilor says. She wants to avoid putting the crossroads of New England in front of another fork in the road, saying, “I do think that’s a voice that’s been missing and I never want it to be like what it was from 2005 to 2022.” She emphasizes that diversity isn’t important only for the sake of gender, but also race. As a mother of two children from China, she wants to make sure that women of varied backgrounds are represented and understood by city government. “Having women and people of color participate and be elected officials makes government stronger,” which Councilor Pniak-Costello believes has other benefits, like an increased trust in one’s governing body. The city of Chicopee may not be driving into the sunset just yet, but the future is certainly looking bright.