In March 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, prior to the lockdown and school closures, something happened at my child’s school that changed the trajectory of my life forever.

My then four year old son, Jett, was the victim of a discriminatory policy that disrupted his schooling and caused social isolation, something I understood as a threat to his mental well-being. Jett was told that if he didn’t change his hair style associated with his culture and heritage, he would be suspended from school.

That day, Jett had worn his hair in braids, something that made him proud and happy. That hair style somehow broke school policy, but it also ignited me to fight to eliminate policies that can hinder children’s achievements and negatively impact their social emotional development.

The incident with Jett forced me to refocus my advocacy efforts. I became my own press secretary, my own coach, and my own self-motivator. After Jett’s situation gained some local recognition in the media, I partnered with Illinois State Senator Mike Simmons as he sponsored a bill that bans hair discrimination against children in all schools – public and private – in our state. We fought every step of the way until that bill, the Jett Hawkins Act, passed the General Assembly and was signed into law. It took effect on New Year’s Day this year.

That was a watershed moment for me, but I also knew it was just the beginning. Now, I’m partnering with Stand for Children as a Payton Parent Fellow, deepening my community engagement and carrying forward the legacy of Kim Payton. I am also working with Stand’s Community & Family Partnerships Director, Tommorrow Snyder, and other stakeholders, pulling together tools and resources for the State Board of Education to help schools implement the law.

As I look to make the most of this opportunity, I’m branching out and working as a professional speaker. My typical audience is at schools and educator convenings, where I aim to activate and elevate student voice and engage them around issues related to self-esteem and confidence – things reflected in Jett’s love of his hair, identity, and culture. Additionally, I plan to continue working to eliminate policies and procedures that threaten the academic achievements of children, cause emotional disruption, social isolation, and adverse mental health outcomes.

Not only am I a fierce advocate for my five children, I’m also a social entrepreneur, parent advocate, and a North Lawndale native. I’m a walking, talking testament to why you should not count anyone out. My parents struggled with addiction but thankfully my extended family stepped in to raise me. Despite being a teen mom, I completed high school in the top five percent of my graduating class. Today, I know that the multitude of adversities that I have faced are what motivates me to make a difference and inspire others to step into their power.

During the pandemic, I became very reflective and introspective. That internal reckoning was the catalyst that compelled me to extend my advocacy reach even further, which led me to create my business: Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats. During the civil unrest of summer 2020, although I was disheartened and overwhelmed by racial injustices and ignorance, I refused to sit silently on the sidelines; I did not intend to be a victim of my circumstances. I was determined to be a facilitator of positive change. That was the moment that I stepped into my power.

That shift in mindset allowed me to think freely and creatively about how I show up to improve outcomes for my community and beyond. Obstacles aside (social isolation, at an economic disadvantage, physical limitation based on proximity to resources), I have found a way to marry my passion for advocacy with my business.

I see, my handmade ice cream as a great uniter, not just a product for sale. I leverage it as the conduit to engage and interact with diverse populations throughout the city of Chicago. Creating Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream and Treats elevated my platform and expanded my local advocacy reach to one that is now worldwide, with contacts across Africa and the United Kingdom. This ice cream social campaign has granted me access to a vast network of community members and like-minded folks who understand and embrace the power of collective impact. My ice cream socials create a safe space for hard but necessary conversations.

I love my neighborhood community, but the reality is it is an economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised place. It lacks resources and investment. The more we work together the more impact we can make for our communities. We can improve education outcomes, improve economic security for our fellow Illinoisans, and we can make the world a better place for our children to inherit.

I hope you’ll join me in this work.

I’ve been so lucky in my life to be where I am today. I am deeply passionate about advocating for my family and my community. Now that I have managed to create better opportunities for myself, I am using my voice to help other families, not turn my back on them. But it wasn’t always like this.

I amplify my voice every chance I get because I am a reflection of what good can come from a broken place. I have experienced a few cycles of life where I fell behind. I have lived below the poverty line. I know those struggles. I know many in our community are struggling now.

For many families in that position, $600 can be the thing that stands between them and homelessness. It’s something that could help pay for after school programs that keep their children safe.

Right now, our leaders have the opportunity to fulfill the promises that they made to the constituents to make their lives a degree better because of their leadership. Expanding Illinois’ Earned Income Credit and creating a statewide Child Tax Credit would give over 4.8 million Illinoisans a refund of at least $600 (or more!) come tax time. It’s simply the right thing to do at a time like this.

I recently spoke at a rally with our Coalition to Make EIC Work partners, where I told my story and urged legislators to support this change. I hope you’ll join me and tell your legislators to support the bill in the General Assembly to give support to Illinois families that need it most.

Access to resources like this is what helped me and my family climb out of poverty. Let’s stand together and urge our legislators to do the right thing and make sure we’re all doing the right thing for Illinois families.

As Stand for Children Illinois’ Community & Family Partnerships Director, I am thankful for the connections and relationships I have built in the communities that we serve. Also, I feel very strongly that it is my job to share resources with our communities and families. So, it was both a privilege and honor to lead our COVID Safety Care campaign.

I felt it necessary for folks in the community to hear directly from me because I am a COVID survivor and COVID long hauler who continues to live with the long-term effects of this virus. Having COVID was terrifying, and, some days, the terror is still there. For sure, the physical effects linger, and this is not a disease I would wish on my worst enemy. You can hear more of my story in these videos we created while in the field during the campaign.

Thanks to a grant from the Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership, Stand volunteers and staff embarked on a door-to-door campaign in some of the hardest hit areas of the South Side of Chicago. Over the course of three weeks, the COVID Care team went to over 2,000 doors where we shared resources about COVID variants, passed out individually wrapped cloth masks, and distributed information about vaccine and testing sites. I will never forget the conversation I had with the gentlemen seated outside the CHA complex in Washington Park. Admittedly, there were challenges running a door-to-door campaign during a global pandemic, but I would do it again, because we authentically connected with communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To me, the COVID Safety Care campaign was different than other “shots in arms” campaigns. Although, I am vaccinated and personally, I would prefer for folks to get vaccinated, I understand that there is still a lot of hesitation about vaccines. So, our team worked hard to get the most up-to-date information about both vaccine and testing sites. Like me, every volunteer of the COVID Care team had either survived COVID themselves, had loved ones with diagnoses, or unfortunately lost a loved one from COVID. Therefore, I knew it was vital that folks most impacted by this pandemic needed to stand alongside with me to share resources with communities most impacted.

To the members of the COVID Care Team, I truly appreciate you. Thank you for braving the elements, prioritizing safety, and sharing your COVID stories with their communities.

“How can I help?” Four magical words that I need to remember to say more often to friends, family, and colleagues.

Here’s how six volunteers are helping Stand Illinois fight for educational equity and justice. Perhaps they may spark in you an idea for helping others; these folks definitely inspire me.

Melissa Hostetter is a first-grade teacher who is active in the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. She’s playing a critical role in increasing awareness – including among legislators – around the reasons why Illinois must step up its game in early literacy. Melissa recently spoke at “Literacy & Justice for All,” an event hosted by the Coalition. (Her presentation begins at 10:56). Melissa explains in an incredibly approachable way about achievable policy changes to support reading instruction for Illinois students.

Stand’s COVID Safety Care campaign is targeting some of the areas that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. The care team went to over 2,000 doors in three weeks, sharing resources for getting the facts about COVID. None of this would have been possible without the help of good people like the amazing Nastassia BallardKeith Wilson, and Savannah Snyder. (They’re pictured with Stand staff member Tommorrow Snyder.)

As we celebrate Veterans’ Day this week, we say a special thank you to Keith for his service to our country. Keith is an Army veteran who served in the Middle East. Our hugs to you, Keith.

Next up, amazing parents and students are volunteering with the Learn from History Coalition. In order for students to create a better society, schools need to provide a thorough, accurate, and fact-based history education. Among the many contributions made by Laurie Goldstein to this effort is sharing her story with the Illinois Times. Equally powerful are efforts from Jennifer Lind, who was a guest on the Beyond the Beltway radio program.

Please also join me in congratulating three staff members for their recent promotions.

As our Government Affairs Director for over 10 years, Jessica Handy played a key role in every education-related policy that Stand has fought for, while also devoting significant time to our bi-partisan political work. Jessica has been so motivated by the amazing people she met through our recent early literacy work that she has begun Orton-Gillingham training so she can tutor children who struggle with reading. She will transition to the role of Stand’s Policy Director where she will continue to lead the Early Literacy Coalition and focus on policy and implementation matters. Meanwhile, Aimee Galvin, is stepping into the Government Affairs Director role. She’s more than hit the ground running already, building off her political, agency-level, and coalition efforts for the last several years at Stand.

Tommorrow Snyder has been promoted to Community and Family Partnerships Director. The title is long because her reach is so far; Tommorrow’s work with policymakers, parents, and community members is always impactful, innovative, and honest.

If we can help you, please let me know. If you would like to help us, well, please also let me know.

The Illinois Constitution makes clear a “fundamental goal” of the State is the “educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.” It continues that the State “shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services.”

Those are high-minded ideas, but the truth is that an effective, equity-driven strategy to move Illinois closer to this Constitutional goal exists. It’s on us to ensure it happens.

Working together, we can remove the deep disparities in access to college-level coursework by expanding dual credit opportunities. Dual credit courses give high school students a jump-start on community and four-year college and the chance for significant tuition savings.

Expanding equity in dual credit courses is the focus of Stand’s latest report. We dive deep on dual credit policies, what is working in school districts across Illinois, and what the State can do to improve equity for all students in these important classes.

This report is the culmination of a year of study and discussions by Stand’s 2019-20 Class of Policy Fellows. Working together before the pandemic hit and after, they connected with dual credit leaders up and down Illinois. Many of those stories are profiled in the report, which highlights a number of steps districts can take to improve dual credit opportunities for their students.

The report also spotlights a number of actions that policymakers at the State level can take to improve equity in dual credit. These are achievable, impactful ways for policymakers and advocates to expand equity for all dual credit students across Illinois

We’ll be in touch with ways to stay involved with dual credit. In the meantime, dig into the report. Read the stories and learn how your district can improve dual credit opportunities for all students.

Libraries, arts, safe and proper learning facilities, and engaging extracurricular activities. These are a few things that most parents and teachers would say all schools should have.

I agree. I had the opportunity to share my thoughts – including the need for strong extracurricular activities – at a recent budget workshop at Corliss High School in Pullman. I was joined by other Stand parents and educators, as well as a number of other parents from across the city.

The meeting had a community feel to it. Everyone was there with ideas on how to make funding our schools work better for Chicago’s students.

A priority of mine is making sure students have access to engaging activities during and after school. These are important to give the kids something to look forward to and help keep them out of trouble. Not only that, but tutoring services would help them achieve more in the classroom.

I heard plenty of other good ideas from parents and teachers. Things like adding librarians, music, and arts classes. Others mentioned the need for fun and safe facilities like gyms for sports and PE classes.

Another strong sentiment that I shared with most everyone there was the need for funding to be equitable and spread across the city, not focused in one specific area.

There were so many strong ideas discussed at the workshop. I encourage you to read more about them in this recent Chalkbeat article. I spoke with them about my ideas, and so did a few other Stand parents – see if you can spot us!