Dulce Quintero has always believed in helping peopleand decades of doing so has resulted in an especially noteworthy achievement.
Recently, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker appointed Quintero, a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame, as secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), making them the first nonbinary individual to helm a state agency. On Nov. 30, the Association of Latinos/as/xs Motivating Action (ALMA) will present Quintero with the inaugural ALMA del Líder (Soul of A Leader) award to celebrate this development.
Windy City Times recently talked with Quintero about their gender-identity journey and their commitment to helping others, among other things.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: First of all, I'm not sure if a lot of people know what IDHS is or does. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Dulce Quintero: Absolutely. At the Illinois Department of Human Services, we have about 14,000 employees. People may know about our local offices where people apply for medical cards, SNAP benefits and things like that. We have more than 100 offices across the state.
We focus on marginalized communities and people who deal with poverty. We also have hospitals; there are seven medical hospitals under our care. We also have seven centers of developmental disabilities in the state as well as a few schools. We provide funding for prevention of and recovery from substance use.
And we're also fighting homelessness and we're working with [Chief Homelessness Officer] Christine Haleyand a lot of my background has involved unhoused populations. I've worked with young people and with people who are chronically unhoused, such as veterans and people who are diagnosed with mental-health and substance-use issues. So all of that work is very dear to me. So when I interviewed in 2019 with [then-]Secretary and current Deputy Gov. Grace Hou, she asked, "What do you think you'll really enjoy?" I said, "I love serving and advocating for people, especially the most vulnerablebut I want operations." She asked why, and I said, "Services are my heart [but] operations are the mechanics and the guts of the engine. You want to make sure everything is working so people are getting the services they need and deserve."
That's when I became assistant secretary of operations [for IDHS]. Now, I have the opportunity to serve as secretary. I love what I do because I started in community work; it wasn't government work. I'm now able to apply my experience in community work into my current seat as a public servant.
WCT: It's interesting that you said you were involved in the "guts" of the machine. Now, you're basically the "brain" of the operation.
DQ: Yes. People who know Grace Hou know that the way she leads as a co-designer and co-creator. So, she brought people onto the leadership team with various levels of experience, and she leads with a racial-equality lens. What that means is that even though I was part of the guts, we co-created and co-designed a lot of IDHS' efforts. But the challenge now is that I'm used to strategizing and executing decisions, but I want to bring people in to co-design; I have to make sure things don't happen in a vacuum.
By the way, when we had to respond to a global pandemic, we thankfully had been working together for a year. We were able to bring up people with so much experiencecommunity experience, nonprofit experience, lived experienceand we were able to respond to the pandemic from a place of racial equityand I think that made our team even closer, because we were invested. [After all,] we needed to make sure that the more vulnerable people had food to eat and all the things they needed.
WCT: Regarding your achievement on becoming the first nonbinary individual to head a state agency, you're receiving an award from ALMA. What does that mean to you?
DQ: Oh… I [recently] delivered the keynote speech for the Hispanic Federation. I focused on what leadership means to me, and I think there's a traditional view on what leadership looks like. I really lead from a place of breaking that mold. I think it's really important that we think about people who have many years of lived experience, because sometimes people only look at credentials.
I have a multifaceted background and identity, as someone who came from Mexico at age 9, and had to learn how to live in this country and speak the language. My parents were farm workers and had to move around a lot; I grew up from a very humble beginning, and I know about poverty. I've had that trajectory in my life and I've experienced homelessness; with that in my background, there will be a whole level of advocacy at the table that will make me relentless; I'll never be too tired to advocate.
I also grew up Mormon, so I was super-religious. I was going to go on a mission for the Latter-Day Saints. I actually went to three high schoolsone in Chicago, one in Mexico City and one in Sacramento, California. The one in Mexico City was a Mormon high school, and I wanted to go to Brigham Young University and then on my mission. But then I went to UC-Davis for collegeand I came out. When I came out and talked to my bishop, I was told I couldn't be Mormon and gay, so I decided to be out and proud. People say, "Dulce, you're so out and proud"and that's because I have to be. And with my gender identity and expression, I never felt like I should be in a box; there needs to be freedom because there's a spectrum. And right now, I identify as they/them but it might look different later.
So [I love] being able to be from a place of humility and being able to bring all of my experiences into this role to help bring about systemic change. Also, there's the fact that we get to work for Gov. Pritzkersomeone who has hired and promoted someone like me. That means a lot, but I also have a lot of responsibility. So I go out into the community and listen to the experts who do the work every day.
WCT: I think it's interesting that you said you have no attachment regarding gender identity because looking at your [Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame] bio, the pronouns used are "she/her." [Note: After induction, the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame does not update bios, per policy.] So your journey taking you beyond the binary happened after your induction.
DQ: Yes. And you know what, Andrew? I've been thinking a lot about [the journey]. Even [at IDHS], with the [email] signature, I didn't put pronouns there for a long time. And my friend will sometimes say, "girl" and "ella," and I'll ask, "Could you try to use more 'they' and 'them' when you speak?" I also have friends and loved ones who say, "Dulce, I'm really trying"and I can see that they're trying. I also think that it's important that we're teaching people; sometimes, they just don't know. People need to ask because some people only prefer their names.
WCT: You've talked a little bit about this, but what is like for you to be part of the queer community in today's America?
DQ: You know, you think you've brought changeand then you think, "Not so much." We have a lot more work to do. I think about our transgender brothers and sistersespecially Black and Brown oneswho are murdered. Hundreds are murdered, and that's an epidemic. We just need to do more.
I'm very mindful that, with my passion in advocacy, about transgender and nonbinary people. When I moved from California to Chicago and I started organizing the Dyke March and moving it from Andersonville, I wanted to make sure that transgender people were part of that movement. I will always speak up for the trans community. We need to do more because we are losing people every day.
The Association of Latinos/as/xs Motivating Action (ALMA) Chicago will honor Dulce Quintero at its 2nd Annual Community Reception. It will take place Thursday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m. at La Celia Latin Kitchen, 2890 N. Milwaukee Ave. For more information about this free event, visit https://app.aplos.com/aws/events/2nd_annual_community_reception.