From Tough Beginnings to Success in Government

James Farrell, Chief Information Officer for the Village of Bolingbrook, IL, grew up in a rough neighborhood, where gang violence was a regular occurance. See how his roots inspire his work as a public servant. This is his story.

Technology has the power to improve lives and communities. My passion lies in fostering collaboration, staying updated with tech trends, and giving back to the community. It’s not just about the job—it’s about making a difference.

I’ve been with the Village of Bolingbrook, IL, for over 16 years because I genuinely love what I do. While I could pursue more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, I find fulfillment in serving my community.

I’ve come miles from where I grew up in Joliet, IL. The people I grew up around really didn’t have a lot to look forward to, and I hung around family members who were in gangs. I had friends who were killed. I had a nephew who was shot in the head.

This is the environment that I lived in and, unfortunately, when you live in that environment, you really don’t see a lot of ways out. What you see is what you think. That’s how your life is going to turn out. So, I totally empathize and understand how kids or individuals get stuck in a rut or get stuck in those places. It’s because you don’t see a way to get out of those places.

A Split Reality

Now, fortunately for me, I was adopted. I was literally given away at a gambling house at six months old.

My birth parents lived in a city outside of Joliet and were poor. But they always spent time at this gambling house, playing poker, dice, or whatever they did, and they would bring me to this location as a baby. The two people I consider my parents now would see these people come with this little baby all the time.

So my adopted mother asked my real mother, “Hey, can we have that baby? Obviously, you’re not doing a good job at taking care of it.”

And they literally gave me away at a table. My new mother told my dad to head to a 7-Eleven, get some milk and some diapers. Then, they took me to Joliet.

My parents always made me aware of where I came from. My adoptive parents would take me on the weekends to visit my real parents in my birth city, so I knew them growing up and saw them get on their feet.

Although my adoptive parents lived in a really bad part of town, they sent me to a private Catholic school. All my friends went to the public schools and I was taking a taxi from kindergarten to eighth grade to a private school on another side of town.

So I got to see two versions of what my life could be. I saw how the families lived in the private school and how those kids were raised. But I also saw what I lived in 24 hours a day: the slums of Joliet.

From kindergarten to eighth grade, I was the only black student in my class. That puts a spotlight on you that you don’t want. I didn’t have the nice shoes or uniforms that some of the other students had, and there were a lot of times that I was treated differently in that private school.

The funny part is, I was treated differently in the neighborhood I grew up in, too. They thought I believed I was better than them because I went to private school.

It was lonely, because really there’s only two outcomes from growing up in gangs and drugs: You’re going to be in jail or you’re going to be dead, like some of my friends or my nephew.

But I made it out.

It's not just about the job.
It's about making a difference.

Building a New Life

It was my wife who helped me change my life. One night, I was supposed to be hanging with friends who were getting into trouble. But instead, I was hanging out with my future wife.

That night, my friends’ apartment got raided and they all went to jail, and got a felony on their record. That was my sign telling me I had to do something different.

We talked about getting married. And then she got pregnant and that was when I knew we were leaving Joliet. We said, we’re going to do something different. We’re going to get a house and we’re going to make a new life.

And that’s what we did. By God’s grace, we found a house in Bolingbrook. At the time, for us, it really was a big cost. But we did it. And I tell my daughter this all the time: Without you and without your mother, I definitely would not be here today because you two made me grow up.

Once we moved to Bolingbrook, things started getting better for me, and there were more opportunities. Were those opportunities hard to come by? Oh, yes. Because there are still forces in our environment that hold people back.

But I was always a person that says, you know what? I’m going to achieve something out of my life.

When we got our first home in Bolingbrook I had been working in the casinos, and I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore.

I was always good with computers, and a company in Naperville took a chance on me and hired me as a new employee. They offered me half the money that I was making in the casino. But we made it work.

I found a mentor at the new job, his name was Bob Busell. He was able to talk to people, communicate with people, and he was always willing to help people. He showed me business skills, showed me networking, showed me communication skills that I didn’t even know I had.

Bob showed me that character defines a person, not their background or job. And another mentor, Roger Claire, helped me shed preconceived notions about people and taught me to see beyond political labels. These lessons transformed my outlook on life.

Starting a Career in Local Government

The transition from the private sector to the public sector was challenging but rewarding.

My childhood was hard, but I think that I’m the person I am because of these experiences. I can communicate with everyone and blend into any environment because I’ve been through it all.

And this carries over into my work in the public sector. Throughout my career, I’ve received recognition for fostering collaboration among different departments. We hold regular meetings with department heads, discussing issues and potential solutions. I even started an IT collaboration award to acknowledge and encourage teams that best exemplify working with the IT department.

And my background in the casino industry has taught me to approach work with enthusiasm and a sense of celebration. For instance, when we introduced an AI chatbot on our website we celebrated its launch like a newborn baby, turning the launch into a party that involved employees and residents to make it a memorable and inclusive event. We even held a contest to name our chatbot, bringing in residents to build excitement and engagement. In my role, I see myself as a cheerleader. I believe that fostering excitement and enthusiasm is key to driving adoption and making technology work for everyone.

I aim to understand the pain points of my colleagues and help them feel good about the solutions we offer.

When it comes to advice, I recently gave a motivational talk where I emphasized the importance of believing in oneself and seeking mentorship. I shared my own journey, highlighting the value of mentorship and the possibility of achieving one’s dreams.

Also, I believe that increasing diversity within government organizations is essential. Representation matters, and by having leaders who reflect the diversity of the community, we can foster positive change. It’s crucial to inspire the youth to pursue careers in various fields, including public service, by providing them with mentors and role models who look like them.

Bolingbrook is a melting pot of cultures, and I’m proud that my children are growing up in a community where they’re exposed to different backgrounds and perspectives. I’m also involved with organizations that promote STEM education in underserved communities, giving children opportunities they might not have had otherwise.

I find the public sector more rewarding because I can make a meaningful impact on my community. Every day in the public sector is an opportunity to make a positive difference in my community, and that’s why I’m committed to this path.

More From Our “Why We Serve” Series