Savin Hill native Rosemary J. Powers has certainly made the rounds working in public administration. She served as deputy chief of staff for former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and as chief as staff for former Massachusetts state Sen. Jack Hart. She later joined the staff of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration, and until earlier this month when she returned to her home turf to take the reins of Cristo Rey High School Boston, she was working as deputy chief of staff for Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo.
Seated at her desk in the Cristo Rey president’s Savin Hill Avenue office last Friday, Powers described her new job as “a fabulous opportunity for me to be both back in Dorchester and working on something so important that brings so many themes from my life together. I’m just thrilled; it’s really special.”
Cristo Rey Boston is a private Catholic high school that exclusively serves families of limited resources. Part of the Jesuit-founded Cristo Rey Network, a Chicago-based institution comprising 37 college prep schools and some 12,000 students across 24 states, it offers students a rigorous curriculum, a distinctive work-study program, and the support of an inclusive community.
Powers grew up in Dorchester, graduating from St. William’s elementary school, which, coincidentally, formerly operated out of the building that Cristo Rey Boston High School currently occupies. From there she attended Fontbonne Academy, a private, Catholic all-girls prep school in Milton, then went on to graduate from Suffolk University and later earn a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
She still lives at her home in Dorchester and has two adult children, Tierney and Colm Flaherty.
She is the daughter of Bob Powers, a lifelong Savin Hill resident who passed away in 2012. He was well known in the neighborhood as a long-time volunteer for civic duty, including as a coach for girls’ basketball and softball teams, and, especially, as the manager of the St. William’s multi-award-winning band. Her mother, Pat Powers, also a lifelong resident of Savin Hill, works as a volunteer at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate on Columbia Point.
“I have a debt of gratitude to the neighborhood, and I want to make sure that I’m giving back to a group of kids right here that remind me a lot of my dad and the struggles that he grew up with,” Powers said. “When my kids were young, I was trying to figure out what to do for school for them and I was committed to raising them in Dorchester—I didn’t want to leave, Powers said, “This was back in the ‘90s, when the public school system was struggling.”
Through organizing with other local parents, Powers started to get into the political side of education and other local issues. “I got more and more involved and started communicating with other people, mostly through the civic association, about what we could do to stabilize the city in many ways,” Powers said. As its chairwoman, she helped grow the group Save Our City, which had as its main goal consistent enforcement of the Residency Ordinance requiring city of Boston employees to reside within city limits.
“I had a taste of politics after doing that so I ran for state representative,” Powers said, “although Marty Walsh won that race. But that’s how I got into politics, through working in the civic associations and being empowered through advocating for the school system.
“I had been working these politically related jobs for about ten years,” she said, “And I felt like I had tremendous experience, but no one recognizes that – and I think this is still true for women – when you do volunteer work on your resume,” she said. That’s when Powers decided to enroll at the John F. Kennedy School Of Government.
After spending years afterwards supporting elected officials, Powers said she came to feel somewhat disconnected at the local level. “I was way up here,” she said, lifting her hand up high, “ but I couldn’t see how it was affecting individual people. I wanted to do something that takes all the skills that I’ve developed working for transformational leaders in government to a place where—I was hoping—I could work in Boston doing good work, on the level where I could see the difference in people’s lives.”
Her move back to Savin Hill was a fast one. She heard from neighbors that Cristo Rey was looking for a new president, and, growing weary of the three-hour daily drive back and forth to Rhode Island, the move just seemed like “perfect timing” for her. So she traded that commute in for an 11-minute walk.
“I’m at a point in my career where I really do want to think about what my personal legacy is,” Powers said. “What I’ve always wanted in my career and my life is to feel like I’m doing good things for people, and I think that is the role of government.”
According to Cristo Rey Boston’s marketing coordinator, Lynne Polcari, a majority of its students are black, Latino, Cape Verdean, or Haitian, and they come from neighborhoods within Mattapan, Roxbury. and Dorchester. A full 100 percent of the student body receives some sort of financial aid/tuition assistance.
In 2010, Cristo Rey left its Cambridge location (which opened in 2004) for Dorchester so the school would be closer to the students that they were enrolling and committed to serving.
“Dorchester has always been a community of immigrants,” said Powers. “We’ve [carried] that whole tradition of education and welcoming people from different places – although sometimes we haven’t done that extremely well in Dorchester. I think it has been a basic value for people in Dorchester and Mattapan.”
Rev. Jack Ahern, the pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Lower Mills, spoke to the Reporter about Powers’s new role. “It’s exciting! She’s coming back to Savin Hill and she knows the area incredibly well. She also brings with her a lot of energy, passion, and also contacts, which is important,” he said, “She brings the energy needed to recruit more students to the school, and the school is a great addition to the community.”
Savin Hill resident and trustee of Cristo Rey Boston Don Walsh calls Powers a “great fit” for the position. “She [has] common sense, she’s practical, she’s committed to the concept of Cristo Rey and it’s an added bonus that she has such a commitment to the neighborhood and the building,” he said, “Cristo Rey is impressive, it does amazing work for the kids, and I think she is going to do a great job and I wish her well.”
Powers, whose family emigrated from Ireland, said that education was a foundational aspect that her family and many other families in Dorchester valued as a tool for self-growth, self-agency, and upward mobility.
“What [Cristo Rey] does,” she said, “is welcome kids who maybe are from recently immigrated families, or from families with limited means and gives them the opportunity to get up that ladder. Education is the way that we do that, whether it’s through the Corporate Work Study Program or our other resources.”