Published November 10th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Voters recently elected Melanie Arroyo, 29, as the next Lenexa City Council member representing Ward 3.
Arroyo, a licensed professional counselor and art therapist, earned 51% of the votes with a total of 1,283 votes in her race against Corey Hunt, who had served as a council member since 2017.
Now, she is the first Latina elected and the only person of color on Lenexa’s City Council. She also is one of the few mental health professionals in elected office.
Arroyo said it was time someone like her should step in.
“I feel like we really desperately need more mental health professionals in politics because we’re in the front lines, and we bring in a different perspective and understanding of the issues,” Arroyo said.
Despite seeing the need, Arroyo didn’t see herself running for office. Then she began working for Susan Ruiz, who is in the Kansas House of Representatives. Ruiz has a background in social work and was an example of someone doing the work with the people in mind.
“The people that we really need are the ones who actually take our communities into consideration, and who are really coming in with a good set of morals and values,” Arroyo said.
So, she took the leap.
Her experience as a mental health professional for the past four years has given her a robust understanding of her community’s needs, especially among the immigrant community.
Multiple folks she encountered while going door-to-door were surprised to, one, see a young Latina who’s bilingual running and, two, to meet someone who was willing to meet them where they were.
“I want this to be the start of something. I feel like it’s important for Latinos to continue to run,” Arroyo said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suburb or in the city. Representation is needed everywhere.”
Early in her campaign, she focused on people who were ignored and many were like her — transplants from elsewhere with a vested interest in improving their district. Some of her community members live in single-family homes and others apartment complexes, but each, she insisted, have a say in who they want to represent them.
For her, community issues are bipartisan.
“When it comes to, you know, issues with water erosion, impact in your neighborhood, or when it comes to developing streets or filling in potholes, I don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican for that,” she added.
She connects the desire to improve quality of life back to her childhood, which began in Chihuahua, Mexico, where she lived her first 11 years.
As a child, she and her twin sister were easy to care for, their mother Leticia said, adding that Melanie was “una niña muy linda (A very lovely girl).” Both tended to each other and their studies with razor sharp focus.
Then in 2003, her family moved to Kansas City. That was difficult for Melanie to grapple with, being in a new place.
Melanie was stressed about not knowing the language because of her love for school, her mom explained. She didn’t want to fall behind.
But they’d soon experience another set of challenges – racism and discrimination – from both teachers and classmates.
One year, her mom recalled, Melanie came home tousled and bruised. A kid had beat her up.
This was one of many instances but none embittered Melanie. Instead, the challenges she faced as a young immigrant in Kansas City schools have shaped her way of thinking and way with people.
Perhap this is why, when her mom first learned Melanie wanted to run for office, she was a little wary.
“La política es sucia (Politics is dirty),” Leticia said matter-of-factly.
In her opinion, politics are dirty because of the way in which folks are taken advantage of – economically and socially. Still, she says she supports her daughter and pointed to her knack for communicating with almost anyone.
Melanie has been able to bridge various divides — across party lines and language barriers.
Latinx people comprise 7.5% of the population in Lenexa. Melanie is part of that small percentage, and will now represent on a larger scale the interests of people like herself, her mom and her twin.
She’s also the first Latina to land a seat on the City Council. To her, this is just one baby step forward. She sees friends like Amanda Vega-Mavec, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Overland Park City Council against incumbent Jim Kite, stepping up to the plate. She senses a shift in the tide.
“We’re seeing Latinos to the front taking care of their communities like they always do,” Melanie said.
Her mentor Susan Ruiz agrees.
Ruiz was among the first openly lesbian state representatives. Being a first is good for visibility, she said.
That ties into her own family’s story, which is similar to many Mexican-American histories. One particular moment stuck with her — her father going to the poll booth, with a small piece of paper in his hand.
It was the 1970s. The poll tax, which restricted Black, Indigenous and Mexicans like Ruiz’s father, was still in full effect. The paper was proof he’d paid for his poll tax.
“You had to pay to vote. And my father never complained about that,” she said.
This showed her how important the power of a vote could be. Ruiz said: “In our family, it is extremely important to vote. We’ve carried on my dad’s legacy.”
So, fast-forward to 2019 when Ruiz ran for a state seat. She knew the multiple intersections of her identity would give her an edge.
“I’m a woman. I’m a lesbian. I’m a Latina. And I’m a social worker,” she said. “So, because of my background, and I’m going to bring out social issues, I’m going to ask things, or I’m going to bring to light things that many of the people don’t.”
That’s also what she saw in Melanie. Ruiz invited the young therapist to join her campaign in 2019.
Mental health professionals and social workers are often in the thick of social issues, engaging with people every day and seeing what people want or need first-hand.
So, Ruiz encouraged Melanie to run. From where she sits, Ruiz has seen a need for someone who can explain policy in Spanish and in English, engage with both parties with respect and take an empathetic approach to leadership.
And so, as the recent election shows, Melanie Arroyo has earned the seat on the Lenexa City Council.
“I plan to deliver on my promise, which is bringing empathy, dignity and respect to the position, to the voters,” she said. “Definitivamente no lo pude ver hecho sola (I definitely couldn’t have done this alone).”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.
Correction: A previous version of this article excluded Melanie Arroyo’s full title. She also was listed as the first Latína to be elected in Johnson County local office. She is not. Arroyo is the first Latina elected in Lenexa. Adrienne Foster was the first Latína elected as mayor in Johnson County and served between 2009 through 2013. This article has been updated.