By: Josh Knutsen (Loyola Sophomore)
This is another article based on the press conference Alderwoman Maria Hadden held with Loyola student reporters.
After an energetic start to her term beginning in 2019, Alderwoman Maria Hadden of the 49th Ward shared with a Loyola journalism class how she is looking to rebuild and improve Rogers Park as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to quarantine, Hadden prioritized homeless aid, trust within the community, open democratic involvement, and mental health resources. Given the harsh conditions of the pandemic, many of these became even more of an issue, presenting a unique storm for the alderwoman to weather.
“Right before the shutdown in March of 2020, we sat down in my office and I’m like, this COVID thing is here, and it’s coming, and what are the needs in our community and what can we do?” Hadden said. “We called upon community resources.”
Now that pandemic-related chaos has somewhat subsided, Hadden said that one of her biggest priorities is to again invest in the community.
“I think it’s important in establishing and re-establishing trust with neighbors,” Hadden said.
Before COVID-19, she held monthly town halls and would go regularly to knock on neighborhood doors as a way of meeting and hearing from her constituents. Once the pandemic hit, these interactions were forced online, a move that Hadden said hurt the effectiveness of citizens’ feedback.
“With the onset of COVID, it was a real challenge, figuring out how we could safely have that natural participation and make ourselves accessible,” Hadden said.
Hadden further adapted to this new challenge by heading outdoors to facilitate, what she calls, her favorite part of the job.
“I took advantage of spring and summer weather to add in additional ways to really try and see people safely outdoors,” Hadden said. “I set up a way that people could schedule me to take a walk. So I invited neighbors on their blocks or individual constituents to take a walk.”
Since then, Hadden has continued this citizen-friendly approach and taken additional steps to prove her dedication.
“I don’t take donations from developers,” Hadden said. “The decision-making I’m doing is based on what I honestly think is good for the neighborhood, and not necessarily based on favoritism, or based on donations that I’m getting.”
Specifically, Hadden said that she is focused on the homeless population in the 49th Ward which was exacerbated by the pandemic. There are over 20 known unsheltered individuals in the ward that she has been aiding via a housing-first model.
“So this housing-first model is [that] the first thing we need to do is get this person secure and safe supportive housing,” Hadden said. “Then we can continue to provide them services to help address what other challenges they might have to be safe, to be healthy, to [be] self-sufficient.”
Additionally, Hadden has made progress with the broader community and noted that she oversaw an additional six million dollar investment in 29 new public health positions. This push initially came as a response to a general decline in mental health, which she also advocated for via community outreach.
“This became really important through 2020, when people were feeling so isolated and disconnected,” Hadden said. “[We have] been structuring community programs and working with these community partners to just try and reach people.”
Hadden facilitated the creation of a block club program which in turn spearheaded several cleanup events, basketball tournaments, public art expositions, and other affairs to stimulate the community.
Specifically, Hadden has tried to include the younger members of the 49th Ward, a group particularly isolated throughout the pandemic. Through the Youth Advisory Council, high schoolers can meet weekly with Hadden to get involved in local government and advocate for the newer generation. Hadden said that the students organized an art gallery, food drive and even sponsored an anti-nuclear war resolution.
“It’s useful for me to be able to pitch ideas and get feedback and hear what they’re thinking about and then to provide a space where they got to take leadership, on deciding what kinds of programming in the ways they want to spend their time in order to be of service to our ward,” Hadden said.
Hadden’s investment in the community regardless of age has seemed to pay off. Young people are active and involved with the program which is resuming in January. Even outside of high school, the broader age group seems to be impressed by Hadden’s involvement.
“I can tell she valued our perspective as the youth,” Kendall Jackson Jr., a member of the Loyola journalism class, said. “Being a resident of Rogers Park for 10 years, I loved how she mentioned that Loyola students who live here during the academic years are equal residents to anybody who’s been here for years.”
Despite the progress Hadden feels she has made, she still admits that there is more to do. Instead of aiming for a higher position, she plans to run for reelection as Alderwoman of the 49th Ward in 2023.
“One term, certainly, I don’t think is enough to feel like I can step away and say: Hey, I made this place significantly better,” Hadden said.