Interview and photo by Khrystyna Stetsiv
Rogers Park resident Maria Hadden, 37, is running for the 49th Ward Alderman position.
She will face long-time Ald. Joe Moore in the upcoming 2019 elections.
If Hadden wins, she’ll be the first African-American queer alderman to serve in Chicago.
Maria has worked in a variety of non-profit organizations and has been an active member of the community. She is the executive director of her own participatory budgeting organization, Our City Our Voice, among other public involvement.
In an interview at a local cafe, Maria discussed what prompted her to run for office and what changes the community needs.
Where are you from and what led you to live in Rogers Park?
I’m from Columbus, Ohio. It’s a racially and ethnically-diverse city, so it was a nice place to grow up in. After finishing college at Ohio State University, I wanted to try living somewhere else just because I never had. I thought that if I didn’t leave then, I probably never would. I signed up to work for a nonprofit organization called AmeriCorps, which brought me to Chicago.
What was your first job and how did you end up in public service?
I had my first job when I was 14. I worked for a non-profit called Interfaith Center for Peace, which helped Ohio school districts to set up peer mediation programs. As a student mediator, I started working with elementary kids when I was in 8th grade, and I worked with high school-aged students by the time I was in high school myself.
I never wanted to be in politics, but I always wanted to be in public service. Based on my experience working in peer mediation, my undergraduate study was in International Studies, specifically in peace and conflict studies. I knew that I wanted to work for a non-profit or government agency.
Why did you decide to run for Rogers Park alderwoman?
Because many people have asked me to. I spent the last seven years of my life in civic engagement. I worked with local governments, community organizations and individuals, both in Chicago and around the country, to help build better government processes. Because of this work, people said, “Hey, Maria, you should run for alderman. You would be really good at this.”
But it wasn’t something that I considered. Having significant experience in working with aldermen in Chicago, I have a pretty good idea about the limitations of the role. It’s hard. It’s not some all-powerful position. It’s a lot of work and it’s difficult to meet the needs of everyone. But after the last couple of elections…not just the Trump election but also the re-election of mayor Rahm Emanuel… I felt the urgency and the need for more people of action and more people impacted by problems to be in charge of making decisions.
I do a lot of civic work and activism in this city, and I felt really good and successful about what I was already contributing, so the main question I asked myself and others was, “Could I be effective in the role of alderman with the experience that I have not only professionally, but also personally?” I felt like being a black, gay woman from a working-class background would make me an effective voice at the table of the city council.
After many conversations with friends, previous candidates, and other women of color as elected officials, I felt very confidently that I could be effective and that I wouldn’t be leaving my work behind, but rather taking it with me. When I told my friends and my partner that I decided to run, their reaction was, “Duh, you should have done this a long time ago.” So I asked myself why I hadn’t considered this before…
Why haven’t you considered running for office before?
I think it’s for the same reason that many women and many minorities don’t consider it – because we’re sent the message that that it’s not for us. No one says it directly, but it’s implied in subtle ways. Realizing this was a really useful reflection and reminder for me that even when you feel stable, comfortable and have overcome some barriers, there are still other barriers, sometimes that we don’t even see. Then I felt really compelled to run. I have goals other than winning and being the next alderman, such as what space can I make, what people can I inspire, and what can I demonstrate to make sure that other people like me feel comfortable running for office.
I’m documenting and keeping track of things and putting together a “tool kit” after the campaign. There are a lot of things about running for office that you don’t know until you try, so I want to capture as much of that information as possible. My team and I want to create a grassroots campaign that’s replicable by other people. I’m learning, and I want other people to learn from my experience.
What policy issues would be your priorities as Rogers Park alderwoman and why?
For our ward, I really want to take more proactive stances on issues that Joe Moore has not. One of my priorities is supporting our neighborhood schools, which need to be fully funded.
I also want to strongly prioritize affordable and accessible housing and development, an issue where Joe Moore has shown a big failure of leadership. About 60% of Rogers Park residents still have a household income of less than $50,000. If there is no active plan on affordable housing, people will inevitably get pushed out of the neighborhood.
Another issue I have is about community safety. While crime and gun violence are a citywide and nationwide problem, there’s a lot I could do as alderman to help bring resources to the existing community. It’s not more police that will help us. There’s not enough attention and focus on prevention. Some of the keys to that are community services, addressing poverty, youth programming, social services that can help with domestic abuse, and supporting schools. All of these things can reduce the likelihood of violence, and they need resources. I would really like to find access to more resources to keep the organizations we have working.
Another key piece to addressing root causes of violence is that we need to know each other better and build stronger community ties. The more people one knows and respects, the more ownership they take of our neighborhood and the less harm we do to one another. We can build upon what is already a healthy community in Rogers Park. I stayed here because I felt comfortable and welcome, which is why a lot of people stay here. It’s something very precious about our neighborhood that we need to maintain.
What is your favorite or most rewarding part of your job?
I love people and working with them. I get to work with people who are actively trying to change things for the better in the community, and there’s nothing better than that. Even when I’m really tired, it’s wonderful. Every neighborhood and every ward is different, but this feeling of solidarity and people wanting to work together is the same. My other favorite thing is that I get to help people do something they have wanted to but have never done before. Being able to facilitate that is very powerful and gratifying.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
It’s hard to do all those things. The people I work with are trying to make changes, and it’s very difficult to work against barriers, whether it’s a barrier of resources or the government specifically working to shut people down. Sometimes people feel hopeless, and it can be difficult to find that spark that will help them continue fighting. It’s also hard to lose. You don’t always win or get the things that you want, but you can’t stop trying. Sometimes you lose and then you get back up and you do it again, and that’s both difficult and also the reason for doing it in the first place.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a role in public service?
Definitely do it. We need more young people with different perspectives working in public service. Everything I’ve done, professionally, personally, and in social civic life, has paved the way for me to do this type of thing. So, volunteer. Even if you’re not sure it’s something you want to do for the rest of your life, take opportunities that seem interesting, especially if you can contribute to society.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Hopefully, in my second term as Alderman of the 49th Ward.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.