A familiar face around City Hall over the past few years, Henry Santana will be among the candidates for City Councilor at-Large this fall.
Santana, 27, who serves as the city’s Director of the Office of Civic Organizing, was born in Bani, Dominican Republic. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 3 and moved into public housing in the Alice Taylor Boston Housing Authority apartments in Mission Hill, the neighborhood where his parents still live today. “I’m a product of Boston,” he said proudly.
Like his parents, Santana didn’t speak English upon arriving in Boston, where they all learned the language.
“We all got the proper education we couldn’t have in the Dominican Republic,” said Santana, now a bilingual English and Spanish speaker.
Santana attended Boston Public Schools and, between junior high and high school, spent one year at Beacon Academy, a Boston-based program that, according to its website, “prepares highly motivated students from communities with limited resources to succeed in competitive high schools, colleges, and careers.”
After completing the rigorous 14-month program at Beacon Academy, Santana entered boarding school as a freshman at Fryeburg Academy in Maine, where he had access to the school’s rich resources, including its own dedicated math-and-science building; a gym with a fitness center; and even a woodworking studio.
Santana “broke barriers” during his four years at Fryeburg Academy, he said, becoming the second-ever class president in the school’s history.
During high school, Santana returned to Boston in the summers and worked as a junior councilor for the Mission Hill Summer Program, which he first attended as a 7-year-old camper. He remained with the program during summers in college as well, eventually becoming a senior councilor and program director.
“Spending time in Maine and then coming back to Boston and serving in [the Mission Hill Summer Program], I really saw the lack of resources that youth in Boston really had access to,” said Santana, “and that really motivated me to serving my community.”
Upon graduating from Fryeburg Academy, Santana returned to the Boston area to attend Lasell University in Newton, where he originally planned to pursue a degree in education.
“I really thought I wanted to be an educator,” he said. “I thought I wanted to be a teacher or a principal one day.”
While attending college, however, Santana said he quickly came to the realization that it was local and state government “who has access to making decisions.” He subsequently changed his academic focus to majoring in history, with a minor in political science.
Weeks after graduating from Lasell University, Santana visited Beacon Academy, where he struck up a conversation with one of program’s directors. He mentioned to her that he hoped to get involved in politics. By chance, this connection was a relative of Kenzie Bok’s and put Santana in touch with the future District 8 City Councilor as Bok was embarking on her maiden campaign for office.
While he would eventually join Bok’s campaign, Santana said he first decided to do his due diligence by acquainting himself with all the candidates in the five-way race.
“They were running to represent the neighborhood I grew up in, so I wanted to make sure I was basically engaged and educated, and that I was aligned with the candidates and their ideas and priorities,” said Santana.
Santana got to know Bok better over the course of that summer, and by its end, she had offered him the position as her campaign’s field director.
After Bok proceeded to win the election as the top vote-getter in all the neighborhoods she would come to represent, she offered Santana the role as her office’s Director of Operations and Mission Hill and Fenway Liaison.
Councilor Bok was sworn in January of 2020, and two months later, the pandemic struck.
“We really had to buckle down with constituent services and make sure the most vulnerable people in the district were protected and connected to our office,” said Santana. “Because we were a new office, we wanted to make sure that the whole district knew we were available to them.”
Additionally, Santana said: “We saw firsthand the challenges that families and residents, especially vulnerable residents, were experiencing, and we tried to do our best to connect residents with the resources they needed.”
In February of 2022, Mayor Michelle Wu selected Santana for his current role as the city’s Director of the Office of Civic Organizing.
“I love it,” Santana said of the position that has charged him with working to improve the facilities and infrastructure of the city’s public housing. “I’ve been honored to serve in a position and in a new office that really focuses on identifying different barriers that residents are facing in engaging with local politics, and creating programs and initiatives that break down those barriers.”
Santana will take a leave of absence from this role at the end of April to focus on his campaign.
If elected, Santana, a self-described “product of public housing,” said “the investments we need to make to expand affordable housing” would rank among his top priorities.
Matilda Drayton, president of the Tenant Task Force at Alice Taylor, the BHA housing development where Santana grew up, said in an April 3 press release announcing his candidacy: “We are so proud of Henry. We need more candidates that know firsthand about living in public housing and can advocate for us.”
Another top priority for Santana is “civic engagement,” particularly providing affordable options for after-school and summer programming to the city’s youth.
Moreover, Santana said: “Public safety is a big issue that I want to focus on. Obviously, there are hot zones where violence is most likely to happen, but across the neighborhoods, there’s a sense of feeling unsafe…whether it’s walking your dog or going to the convenience store.”
As city councilor, Santana said he would strive to better connect Boston Police with communities to “build trust and transparency” between them.
But Santana also realizes that communities cannot heal if pathways aren’t created for returning citizens.
David Jean-Jacques, executive director of the Big Hope Project, said in a press release: “As someone who’s spent years working with incarcerated individuals, I know firsthand how important it is to have leaders who prioritize criminal justice reform and support reentry programs. Henry Santana is that kind of leader. He understands the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated and is committed to ensuring they have the resources they need to successfully reintegrate into our community.”
Meanwhile, Councilor Bok has endorsed Santana for City Councilor at-Large.
“Henry Santana has a heart for service and an instinct to include everyone,” Councilor Bok said in part in an April 19 press release announcing her endorsement of him. “He knows firsthand how public housing and great youth programming gave him the opportunity to thrive in Boston, and he wants to lay that same foundation for every other person in our city. I’m proud to endorse him for an At-Large seat on the Boston City Council, where his experience in city government and his passion for civic engagement will make him a great champion for all our communities.”
Councilor Bok continued: “When the pandemic hit, I saw how Henry served as a resource to his whole community. He was the person who helped our office connect with Mission Hill families that were hungry during lockdown, and who Tobin School teachers asked for help delivering computers and reaching out to absent students. As a former director of the annual affordable summer camp in Mission Hill, he has also been a mentor and role model to countless young people, whom he still connects to resources and opportunities. I know that the entire city of Boston would benefit from Henry’s strong work ethic and passion for helping others.”
Likewise, Sandra Nijjar, executive director of East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, said in a press release: “I’ve seen firsthand how Henry Santana is committed to improving the lives of our neighbors in East Boston. As a City Councilor at-Large, I know he’ll fight to ensure that every person in our community has access to healthy food and a warm meal.”
Jerren Chang, CEO of civic nonprofit GenUnity, is another supporter of Santana for City Councilor at-Large.
“Each of us can contribute to building a community that works for all of us,” Jerren Chang, CEO of civic nonprofit GenUnity, said in a press release. “Henry Santana shares this vision of bringing people together to drive change and has a proven track record of working tirelessly to improve our neighborhoods.”
Santana will be among the candidates for City Councilor at-Large in the preliminary municipal election on Sept. 12. To learn more about Henry Santana’s campaign for City Councilor At-Large, visit henrysantana.com or follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.