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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Tackling Global Issues Locally with Chicago Alderwoman Maria Hadden

Maria Hadden brings a global point of view to her position on the Chicago City Council as the alderwoman of the 49th Ward. Since being elected in May 2019, she has pushed forward issues of local, national and international importance, such as recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, exploring reparations to Black people and supporting a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons.

Hadden shares background about her life before the elected office, that included undergraduate and graduate work in international relations, and how the housing crisis of 2008 led her to community activism in Chicago and eventually to becoming an alderwoman.

Maria Hadden

Understanding the cascading impacts of what policy changes can do – how they not only affect global markets and economies – and how something here (in Chicago) can change something across the globe, … (that is what) really brought me to a local focus.”

-- Alderwoman Maria Hadden, Chicago 49th Ward

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today's guest is tackling United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions from an elected position right here in Chicago. Maria Hadden sits on the Chicago City Council as the alderwoman for the 49th Ward. This is great. The 49th Ward is a diverse community on the north side of the city, just a few miles from Northwestern University's Evanston campus and home to many of our students and staff and faculty. She joins me today to talk about her boundary breaking work to bring issues of social justice, racial justice and reform to the forefront in the city of Chicago's Municipal Council. Welcome, Maria. We're so happy you're here. So, Maria, you knew from a young age that you wanted to have a career that supported people that supported community. Tell me about how you got here. What has been your trajectory to where you are today? 

Maria Hadden [00:01:30] Well, it all started in eighth grade. I'll say that like a lot of folks, there are certain opportunities through my school that came around. So I went to a public school in Westerville, Ohio, and in eighth grade, my school and my school district adopted a peer mediation program. We think about a lot of our restorative justice programs you might see in schools today and peer mediation programs and the state of Ohio in the '90s. We're kind of at the forefront of that. I was selected to be trained as a peer mediator, so addressing peer conflicts. And the organization that our school hired to train us was the Interfaith Center for Peace. So a really small nonprofit like one permanent employee, and they worked with young people, and they believed in the power of youth leadership of young people working as peers to kind of lead from within. In eighth grade after going through my first weekend training to mediate problems in my school. The other thing that Interfaith Center for Peace did was enlisting lifting up youth voices, they would hire students. So it was actually my first job was a filling out this application and then getting to work with the Interfaith Center for Peace, starting in eighth grade to train other young people. And then eventually I worked with them all the way through college, also training adults. So we got to travel around the state of Ohio and perform trainings and trainings for trainers with youth and adults through lots of public school districts. That formative experience was something I was good at, at listening and working with people to help them identify and solve problems and interpersonal conflicts. Got my mom excited. She decided I should be the next Kofi Annan, the peace studies and conflict management piece really comes from there. And then finding a passion for it and some skills at it, it's really been a pretty solid thread through most of my educational and professional choices. 

Annelise Riles [00:03:31] So you also have a master's degree in international public service management from DePaul. Tell us a little bit about that. What drew you to study international issues at the postgraduate level and how has that impacted your life in your career? 

Maria Hadden [00:03:47] It was really a continuation from even my undergraduate studies. My undergraduate program was in the International Studies Department at Ohio State, and I got to pick a specialty and it was peace and conflict studies. Having that background at the undergraduate level, when I was ready to pursue my master's degree, I knew that the public service sector was where I wanted this training. Another formative experience for me in undergrad was actually my first study abroad, which was when I was 19. It was a fantastic study abroad program again through Ohio State and Mexico. And it was a six week program exploring the effects of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the year 2000. Being able to visit the state of Ohio's Department of Trade Office in Mexico City and getting that perspective of how interconnected we are even when we don't think we are, it's something that just kind of stuck with me.  When looking at public service management, and I wanted to continue with this global perspective, even if I wasn't going to have a global focus. 

Annelise Riles [00:04:50] The other thing that's really interesting about your story is that it's about studying something global NAFTA, but through the lens of its impact locally in Ohio, at Buffet a lot of what we do. Is focusing on those United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and how we can further those goals and sometimes when people think about something like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, they think that's a really far away thing and international institutions, and it's very top-down. And what's exciting about you is you've really been championing the impact of those kinds of initiatives locally and the achievement of those initiatives through local actions. So you were executive director of Our City, Our Voice, which is a national nonprofit organization, and through that, you founded all kinds of work to foster more equitable participation in democracy. Could you say a little bit about how you think about the relationship between global and local in the work that you do? 

Maria Hadden [00:05:47] Studying so much globally, I ended up on the local track through the 2008 housing crisis. I had started my graduate program and had been living in Chicago for a few years. I was working for a big corporation, going to school part time, working full time and otherwise starting to sink my roots into Chicago. And when the housing market crashed, I like so many others, not just in Chicago, but of course around the country was really negatively impacted. So loss of income and job due to the recession. Most notably, though, having the risk of losing my housing, my neighbors and I work together, I tell people it was a really crucial awakening. After spending so much time thinking globally and even moving to a bigger cities like Chicago from Columbus, Ohio, and I always thought of myself as a pretty engaged and informed resident, I read the newspaper I voted, I volunteered. I was a student in school, but very much was thinking of taking that master's degree, moving back into the nonprofit or government sector and kind of moving towards that international global work. But what I found through this experience was if you talk about large scale economic impact, our housing market like our policies in our country, the practices within our city, how they impact that people on an individual level and then of course, that economic impact and how it affected the globe and and feeling also that very local thing of I went to my alderman. I started engaging the city of Chicago because I needed help and my neighbors needed help. And I had a lot of assumptions about what government could do and living through the housing crisis and seen so many failures in government and so much of what local government couldn't do, really inspired me to throw a lot of energy into what we could do. And what we're seeing this through the pandemic, through this crisis, people on the local level, we can help each other, whether it's advocating for policy changes, which I did with my neighbors. We actually got state law changed around Illinois condo law or our unique situation that we found ourselves in, or whether it's developing mutual aid groups. But understanding the cascading impacts of what policy changes can do, how they not only affect global markets and economies, and how something here can change something across the globe. But also, I think, feeling very poignantly the direct impact on the individual that happens at a place, whether it's Chicago or Dallas, Texas or Mexico City, there are real human impacts and that acute experience, really brought me to a local focus. And I found a lot of positives in that empowerment in working with neighbors to solve problems, and it has to start there to some degree. 

Annelise Riles [00:08:51] Well, thank you so much for sharing that story. That's incredible. And I think for a lot of our young people, even at the university, we hear people say, Well, there's nothing I can do or where would I start? And hearing a story like this makes you feel like, Wow, actually, I could do something locally that matters. So I want to shift gears and talk about an initiative you've introduced for the City of Chicago to mark June 19th, 1865 Juneteenth. The day that formerly enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, learned of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln as an official city holiday. What inspired you to push this measure forward? 

Maria Hadden [00:09:28] This is something that I'm really proud of that I was able to work on with my team. Another example of what you can do locally. I was inspired to push this measure forward because community members with a group called the Black Remembrance Project, so they're just just a group of organized neighbors in Chicago. They wanted this to be a holiday in Chicago. And they reached out to City Council members across the city. They reached out to my office and dozens of others. And I think we were the first office to grant them a meeting and to listen to what they wanted to do, and I agreed with them like we should have this is a holiday, this is something that a lot of us celebrate already. And it could be such a healing and positive thing in the city of Chicago. And I was inspired by their passion, by the work that they had been doing and their folks from all living in different parts of Chicago than I currently live. Myself and a couple members of our of my staff took it on as an issue and started to work on it legislatively. That's one of the best things about this role is when we're connected to community and people working on local issues, we have opportunities as legislators to be champions for issues. The Black Remembrance Project and members of this organization had been advocating at the local level, but also nationally and connected to other groups. And we were the first aldermanic office to take a meeting with them, even though they'd reached out to dozens of folks. But I was inspired by their passion and what they saw in a vision of not just why Juneteenth should be celebrated, but what it could do for Chicago in terms of education, in terms of bringing communities together and really promoting healing. It was a wonderful project to work on. Great residents to support. This is the benefit of being in a legislative position. We don't have to come up with all of the ideas. There are a lot of great ideas that people most impacted, people at local levels bring to our attention. We just have to find the time to be champions of some of those good ideas. 

Annelise Riles [00:11:36] So let's talk about another good idea, which is reparations. Black Americans have been fighting for reparations tied to slavery for generations at all levels of government. And it was very exciting here in Evanston. Recently, we, of course, took some action on that front and we're working through the policy challenges, but we are making progress. And last year, there was a push to examine whether the city of Chicago should also have some sort of policy around reparations. Can you tell us a little bit about where that policy stands and what your position on it is? 

Maria Hadden [00:12:09] Yeah, it's fantastic to see that pass through Evanston. Congratulations to the city of Evanston and the residents there. Alderman Roderick Sawyer, has been the champion for a resolution to create a commission to examine what reparations could look like in Chicago. I was a co-sponsor of his resolution as were many of my colleagues. He's the chair of our Committee on Health and Human Relations and I am a committee member. The initial legislation that I believe he had pushed for this years prior to my election, and he brought it back this term. So I'm very supportive of this. And he again worked with a lot of community members, residents of Chicago, public scholars, people who have been advocating for this on a national level. I'm happy to say that what we were able to pass actually created a subcommittee for our Committee on Health and Human Relations to be able to advance this. I'll say on the roadblock piece and most notably, we don't have a reparations program and we created a subcommittee. Chicago and I'll say some of the roadblocks are sometimes considerations from leadership or from other folks in elected office. I think there are concerns that maybe Chicago's not ready for this. There's always pushback with things related to race. People feel like sometimes talking about race or highlighting race will exacerbate racial tensions. I think we're seeing and living through a lot of that logic in other parts of the country and the conversations, though, and what Alderman Sawyer through our committee was able to do, I think really advance some of the ideas of we're not necessarily just talking about direct cash payments, but what can we do with reparations to actually repair harm, to acknowledge harm and specifically to address systemic changes? Some of the ideas that we floated around what reparations could look like in Chicago even cross over into housing. So Alderman Osterman, the chair of our housing committee, has held some really fantastic hearings where we've brought financial institutions to task in the city of Chicago for current discrimination. So could we have a reparations program similar to what Evanston has done to help address housing discrimination and inequities and how black people have that access to that capital. We've looked at what kind of additional programs we could do to bridge education gaps for small business owners in economic development. So I think there's a lot of good proposals on the table and they kind of sit in a subcommittee and in the hands of legislators to come up with some of the solutions that we'd like to push forward. 

Annelise Riles [00:14:58] That's super exciting and we appreciate your leadership. I want to switch gears now. And talk with you about nuclear weapons elimination, which is another one of your priority areas, so as you know, but our listeners may not know, there have been some really interesting developments in this space in the last couple of years. A new nuclear ban treaty outlawing nuclear weapons not outlawing the proliferation of weapons but outlawing weapons altogether actually became international law last year, when it was ratified by more than 50 nations. And it's interesting what nations ratified it. It was mostly the small post-colonial nations, the nations that had been themselves sites of testing. And of course, none of the nuclear nations signed on to this treaty for their work. In organizing all this, the NGO Ican, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, actually received the Nobel Peace Prize. But to mainstream nuclear nonproliferation types in the world that I often work in in international affairs, this all sounds like total insanity. What, ban nuclear weapons completely? And then a campaign began around the world to pass resolutions at the municipal level in support of the treaty and to take local action, if not national action, like banning nuclear ships from docking in local ports and in the U.S. this is called the Back From the Brink campaign, and Evanston and Skokie have both passed resolutions in support. And most recently, we saw the city of New York, New York City divest completely its government employee pension funds from any company that instead involved in the production of nuclear weapons in accordance with the terms of this treaty. So stuff is happening. Now you have sponsored a resolution that would really support this treaty in Chicago. And let's remember that Chicago actually already has a municipal ordinance dating back decades that bans the production of nuclear weapons in a city. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this issue, why you think it's important to you? 

Maria Hadden [00:17:00] It 's one of those issues that sometimes I feel like I have trouble explaining to folks because it seems like it's the most common sense thing in the world. We shouldn't have nuclear weapons, we shouldn't be making any more of them because it's just the destruction, the harm that the use of these weapons has cost could cause and even think about how much of these weapons existence and of course, our continued production of them. Think about how much it costs us both in terms of financial cost, but also in terms of our diplomatic relationships. We're in this space right now, russia, Ukraine and so much that underlies the fear of armed combat also tied to the existence of the nuclear weapons. So much of our foreign policy is driven around this for myself, and I'll say we got to work with the Union of Concerned Scientists with this. So again, people reach out to our office to share these ideas, to share the very important work that they're doing. And they ask me as a legislator to help them with it. This is what people do. But with this particular issue, in addition to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we had some local groups also interested. So most notably was my Youth Advisory Council for the Year 2020 to 2021. So we have a youth council with high school aged students, and our first year was the 2020 2021 school year and our young people were very supportive. I actually took this to them and said, Is this something that you guys think I should sponsor? Is this something you would like your alderwoman in the city of Chicago to do? And they were very on board because I think even to them, and similarly, these large scale issues, they don't understand why we would want to continue on this path. And the back from the brink campaign made a lot of sense to them. And then, of course, another local organization who's been longtime champions of anti-nuclear proliferation has been the Benedictine Sisters at St. Scholastica. So longtime advocates. They're here in the ward, and so they've also worked with me on this. It's an issue again where we can act locally and we can make a statement and we can join a movement, and it's sometimes small actions that add up to big change. And I think one of the goals here that I understood from the Back from the Brink campaign is really culture change as well. We've got to change our minds when our sentiments about how we think about this. We've accepted it as a part of our lives and our existence or longer than I've been alive. And I think this is some of the important work for us to start questioning: Do we need to continue creating nuclear weapons? Do we need to continue this? And would we like to listen to some of the most impacted nations in the world and come into compliance with international law? 

Annelise Riles [00:19:52] That's so powerful. I'm really interested in your story because it's about young people championing this issue. And I think a lot of people, when they hear about nuclear weapons, they think, Oh, that's like something from the 70s, it's like aging, graying activists who are interested in this. Nobody cares about this now. Did it surprise you that young people would sort of champion this issue? 

Maria Hadden [00:20:14] It did a little bit. That first meeting that I took with the Union of Concerned Scientists, it's not an issue that I thought about much. I didn't think about nuclear weapons. I live in the city of Chicago. I look at city issues and even before being in office, it's something that never really crossed my mind. And so it was fascinating to hear kind of up to date information about what was changing in international law about the United States position. And of course, I'd say I was aware, and generally it wasn't difficult to convince me. But once being kind of confronted with it as a now issue, I certainly had those preconceived notions as well of oh, right, like like people like the sixties and seventies were like, Really, those are big activists issues then. So, yeah, I had a sneaking suspicion that the youth might be interested, but was really taken by how quickly they were drawn to it and how significant and timely they saw it.

Annelise Riles [00:21:12] At Northwestern Buffett, we have begun to think about everything we do through the lens of intergenerational justice. And of course, this makes sense because we train students, among other things. But thinking about issues like this, whether it's climate change or peace and security or racial justice or inequality through the lens of youth engagement and intergenerational justice, I think gives you a different perspective. And you're so good at that. The other thing that I think is really unique about your proposed resolution, as far as I know, is that it's one of the first or perhaps the first to make the direct connection between the production or elimination of nuclear weapons and issues of systemic racism. I haven't seen that before. Can you explain where this focus came from? Because it's obviously a very powerful new argument. 

Maria Hadden [00:22:05] So really, this came from, I think, the collaborative approach of working with our youth, working with the Union for Concerned Scientists and thinking about what could Chicago add to the conversation, thinking about the intersections of Chicago's own history and in creation of nuclear technology and weaponization, but also thinking about Chicago's place in racism and systemic racism in our country and how that connects so much of again, this goes to these individual stories that we have and the local issues that we might face. And how can we connect those things in a meaningful way to get somebody in Chicago thinking about what might seem to be disconnected to them? And this is a unique opportunity. Chicagoans have been at the forefront whether civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, working on all kinds of challenging social movements and challenging systemic racism and systemic inequality on many levels. Why shouldn't Chicago be on the forefront of this issue? And I think framing it through this lens offers a unique perspective coming from a unique U.S. city. 

Annelise Riles [00:23:23] Where does the resolution stand now? 

Maria Hadden [00:23:26] So hopefully will be heard in committee this month. 

Annelise Riles [00:23:28] Very exciting. Well, thank you so much for your leadership in that space. Finally, Maria, I want to ask you the question that I ask all my guests, which is, as you think about the future, what are you most worried about and what gives you the greatest amount of hope? 

Maria Hadden [00:23:47] Well, I'll situate this in a perspective of coming from thinking about our country, and it worries me the place of instability that we're at when it comes to our democratic process. A lot of my work, even though, was kind of rooted in conflict resolution. Much of my professional career has been in small the d-democratic engagement, training, organizing and working to empower residents at a local level to just get involved civically to take action. Democracy takes work. Democracies are difficult to sustain. And for a while now, our democracy has been in trouble and it seems to be in pretty scary shape and that that worries me. But on the flip side, the thing that gives me hope is how many conversations, how many spaces I see being created over this last couple of years through the pandemic, especially, where I see people talking about it. More people are naming problems where people are pointing out systemic issues, where people continue to take action. When I think about what sustains and creates a healthy democracy, that's such a large part of it. And so it gives me hope from large scale actions that we see take place at like City level to conversations on tick tok. It's happening all over the place and people are still doing the work of democratic engagement, and they're still trying to make us better. 

Annelise Riles [00:25:16] Well, talking to you gives me hope. You are such a model to see someone of your ethical, spiritual, intellectual quality in this role is just super exciting. Thank you so much for your time today and thank you for all you do. Maria. 

Maria Hadden [00:25:32] Thank you, Annelise. I appreciate you.

Annelise Riles [00:25:38] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at