Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas (Credit:

The community-centered equity goal guides its approach to policy development

For Capitol News Illinois

Friends of Senator Cristina Pacione-Zayas tease her for changing the meaning of words. “Solution” becomes a verb when it says “I am about to solve. ”

Pacione-Zayas, 43, D-Chicago, has actively “resolved” since taking office in December when then-senator Iris Martinez resigned to become clerk of the County Circuit Court. Cook. Representing Chicago’s Northwestern 20th Borough, Pacione-Zayas leveraged his education expertise and relied on his community-driven equity goal to guide his approach to policy development. .

Raised as an only child, her community played a big role in her life. She grew up in Logan Square and from an early age her parents took her to board meetings and community events, instilling in her the importance of social responsibility and collective action. These experiences “have really helped shape what I bring in terms of a legislator,” she said.

Her mother, a first-generation Italian-American, and her Puerto Rican father, who immigrated to town with his family in the 1950s, met at the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club. Her father ran the open gymnasium while her mother taught photography.

“I saw my parents negotiating gang truces and making sure the basic needs of families were met and creating space for young people to be safe, seen, validated,” she said.

When Pacione-Zayas was 7 years old, her mother became a wheelchair user. She witnessed how people’s attitudes towards her mother changed when they realized she had a disability. Her mother earned a master’s degree in disability and cultural studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago and works in nonprofit administration. Her father is a social worker who graduated from the University of Chicago.

For Pacione-Zayas, seeing his mother travel the world gave him insight into discrimination.

“People make a lot of assumptions because she’s in a wheelchair, which diminishes her abilities,” said Pacione-Zayas, who, because of her mother’s experiences, advocates universal design in architecture.

Bridget Murphy, director of the Parent Engagement Institute at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said Pacione-Zayas and her family have been involved in community work for decades. The state senator is also raising her children – two elementary students who attend public schools – in the neighborhood, Murphy said.

This allows Pacione-Zayas to understand the challenges and obstacles that families sometimes face in navigating the school system, she said.

“What I love about her is that she is so interested in how things work or don’t work in the field,” Murphy said. She can look at any challenge and start to find a solution “by translating it into politics in her brain.”

Pacione-Zayas has served on the association’s board of directors, which trains leaders and runs several thematic campaigns, including affordable housing, according to the organization’s website.

She received her doctorate in educational policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where her goal was to apply the theory she was learning in the classroom in the community.

A student of the teachings of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, she said that “systemic racism is the main obstacle facing Latinos, the African American community and other marginalized people.”

Education, she said, is the path to “liberation and self-determination, autonomy and self-realization”.

While Pacione-Zayas was finishing her studies, she worked in Little Village as the director of community schools at Enlace, a nonprofit social service organization based in South Chicago. She has helped set up computer literacy, adult education and youth enrichment programs in neighborhood schools.

She has held a number of leadership positions, including Director of Education for the Latino Policy Forum and Co-Chair of Puerto Rican Agenda, a non-profit organization that advocates for the Puerto Rican community.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, she led organizational efforts to secure local and national resources to help islanders, but also for families moving to Chicago, according to several news reports. . She was appointed by Gov. JB Pritzker as secretary of the Illinois State Board of Education, leaving that post before becoming a state senator.

Most recently, Pacione-Zayas was vice president of policy at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for childhood development, where she led the development of the school’s Early Childhood Leadership Academy and Community Data Lab. , according to his biography.

“She is a tremendous advocate for Latinos in education,” said Erika Méndez, associate director of education at the Latino Policy Forum. “We see her as an ally not only in education and health, but also in social services and racial equity. She has the knowledge to really make a difference.

One of the group’s advocacy issues calls for a policy to ensure Latinos have access to early childhood development programs. Mendez said language barriers, the complexity of navigating these services, and the lack of intentional Latino outreach mean that many children miss this important educational springboard.

According to Census Reporter’s 2019 census data, the 20th arrondissement is 53% Latino. Statewide, the Latin American population is 18.7 percent from 15.3 percent in 2010, while overall, the population of Illinois declined 0.1 percent cent, according to the US Census Bureau.

“As our population grows, our representation should increase,” Méndez said.

Pacione-Zayas said the community must hold elected Latinos accountable to ensure their work advances the voices and needs of the people they represent.

The path to legislation must include community participation, which can make the process difficult but crucial as it is “the work of the people,” said Pacione-Zayas, who is hosting several roundtables where community leaders give their feedback. opinion on legislative proposals.

A sense of urgency and excitement is ingrained in her voice when speaking about her legislative goals.

“I will do whatever I can to advance the ideals around affordable housing, high quality early childhood care and education, access to comprehensive health services and, of course, of the fight against the root causes of violence ”, she declared.

Last spring, she spearheaded the passage of a bill that would establish a higher education consortium focused on creating a “streamlined early childhood workforce”. She said the next step is to secure the sources of income so that the salary of early childhood educators is equal to that of K-12 teachers.

She said a usage formula used to determine funding for schools needs to be corrected. She said schools that use the space for mentoring services, clinics and parent universities don’t get the credit because they don’t have a traditional classroom setup.

On affordable housing, she said an omnibus bill she supports would allocate $ 75 million annually to incentivize building affordable housing.

No Chicago state legislator can ignore the headlines that count the growing number of murders in the city.

“Violence is a huge problem in our city, but we know that continuing to invest money in traditional law enforcement and punitive measures is not getting the results we want,” she said.

She said meeting people’s basic needs like housing, decent-paying jobs, addressing chronic health needs and addressing challenges with mental health issues should be the priority.

Pacione-Zayas said her experience as a first-year lawmaker so far has been grueling, like caring for a newborn baby, but also exhilarating, like staying up late to complete an assignment for school. In the June primary, she will run as the incumbent and have the opportunity to cement community support for her “solution” style.

This story was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the University of Illinois-Springfield Public Affairs Reporting Program. The story was written as part of the PAR course.

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