AIt was Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden's friends who convinced her to run for city council as the 49th Ward's alderperson.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Hadden moved to Rogers Park 20 years ago after graduating from The Ohio State University. She quickly became acquainted with the local hangout spotsher favorite was the Heartland Cafeand began to connect with other residents.
Although she was initially hesitant to run for office, Hadden decided that not only did she have the necessary skill set and a solid connection to the community, but her identity as a queer Black woman would help her better understand the complexities of intersectional issues as well.
"I'm living at the intersection of all marginalized identities," Hadden said. "It just makes you think differently and act differently."
Since taking office in 2019, Hadden has been working collaboratively with the 49th Ward community to address social issues, such as establishing access to COVID-19 resources and support for seniors as well as encouraging vaccinations. In addition, she actively seeks out diverse perspectives from "people who don't think that their voices matter" to learn more about the people she serves and their complex needs.
"There is a lot of work to be an alderwoman, but most of it doesn't happen in city hall. Rather, it is [within] the community," Hadden said.
Much of her recent focus has been on finding ways to support her constituents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Hadden and her team organized a COVID-19 response group and created a website that both provided the community with information about the virus and recruited volunteers.
Hadden and her team helped train volunteers, established a resource hotline and helped coordinate numerous testing and/or vaccination events. They also created a grocery pickup system in which volunteers would drop off groceries at the homes of people most vulnerable to coronavirus.
She said that these programs could only have been accomplished through the relationship she cultivated with her community, by building trust and connections as well as actively listening to her community's needs.
Hadden's first significant piece of legislation to be approved was the Senior Safety Ordinance. This mandate, approved in June 2020, requires that owners and managers of senior housing implement further practices to protect their residents' safety, health and well-being during a public health-related disaster, such as COVID-19.
Some of the new requirements include biweekly wellness checks with tenants, the provision of food and a new cleaning regimen that ensures high-contact surfaces are disinfected multiple times daily. Owners and managers will also need to provide documentation regarding the dates and times of all resident wellness checks and cleanings.
Overall, Hadden believes the city has done a good job, considering the massive pivot everyone experienced when the pandemic shut down Chicago. She praised the city's transparency and daily updates.
"We had librarians making face masks. We had city workers making hand sanitizer," Hadden said.
However, she does believe Chicago Public Schools (CPS) needs to step up its COVID-19 protocols, as cases among students and teachers are increasing. She called for more transparency regarding testing and infection rates and making information more readily available for parents. Hadden hopes new CPS CEO Pedro Martinez will correct these issues.
She has also been a huge advocate for vaccinations and continues to encourage those who have yet to get the COVID-19 vaccine to ask questions and choose to get the vaccine.
She described how one night, while putting away chairs and equipment from a community meeting, a man riding his bicycle saw Hadden and her colleagues and asked if they were distributing the vaccine. He explained that his partner was a school teacher and was already vaccinated. However, he still had some reservations. Hadden spent the next 20 minutes answering all his questions.
"Some people who are unvaccinated still just have some honest-to-goodness questions," she said. "They're uncertain. They don't have the information. Maybe they've heard misinformation. Maybe they're nervous or scared."
Hadden is also one of eight council members who signed a letter to public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady asking that all public indoor spaces begin requiring proof of vaccination before entry. She hopes that this letter will encourage more people to get vaccinated, as she feels that small businesses couldn't handle another major city shutdown.
"We have some things that we can do that are preventative, like vaccinations and mask-wearing. So we should do that as much as possible," Hadden said.
She encourages her community to continue to stay informed and in contact with her office as she begins working on other social issues, such as creating a non-police crisis response team and violence prevention initiatives.
"We've got to find some alternative paths to what we're doing in our city," Hadden said. "It's not so much even finding alternatives to policing. It's how we are addressing the social needs that are the root causes of our violence."
Hadden also wants Chicago citizens to pay more attention to the impacts of climate change on Lake Michigan. With record-high lake levels, the 49th Ward is one of many districts vulnerable to flooding. It has already lost three of its beaches.
"I believe that having people most impacted by an issue of policy or law at the table, and being able to weigh in and have decision-making power, is what makes our democracy stronger," Hadden said.