State Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas’ friends tease her for changing the meaning of words. “Solution” becomes a verb when she says “I’m about solutioning.”
Pacione-Zayas, 43, D-Chicago, has been actively “solutioning” since she took office in December when then-state Sen. Iris Martinez stepped down to become clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Representing the 20th district on Chicago’s Northwest side, Pacione-Zayas has flexed her expertise in education and leaned on her community-minded equity lens to guide her approach to policymaking.
Raised as an only child, her community played a huge part in her life. She grew up in Logan Square and, from a young age, her parents took her to board meetings and community events, instilling in her the importance of social responsibility and collective action. Those experiences “really helped shape what I bring to the table in terms of a legislator,” she said.
Her mother, a first generation Italian American, and her Puerto Rican father, who migrated to the city with his family in the ’50s, met at the neighborhood Boys and Girls Club. Her father ran the open gym while her mother taught photography.
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“I witnessed my parents negotiate gang truces and ensure that families have their basic needs met and create a space for young people to be safe, to be seen, to be validated,” she said.
When Pacione-Zayas was 7 years old, her mother became a wheelchair user. She witnessed first-hand how people's attitudes toward her mother changed when they realized she had a disability. Her mother completed a master’s degree in disability and cultural studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and works in nonprofit administration. Her father is a University of Chicago-graduated social worker.
For Pacione-Zayas, witnessing her mother navigate the world gave her insight into discrimination.
“People make a lot of assumptions because she is in a wheelchair, diminishing her abilities,” said Pacione-Zayas, who, because of her mother's experiences, advocates for 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-age students who attend public schools – in the neighborhood, Murphy said.
This informs Pacione-Zayas’ understanding of the challenges and obstacles families sometimes face navigating the school system, she said.
“What I love about her is she is so interested in how things work or don't work on the ground,” Murphy said. She can look at any challenge and begin coming up with a solution “by translating it into policy in her brain.”
Pacione-Zayas sat on the board of the association, which develops leaders and spearheads several issue campaigns including affordable housing, according to the organization's website.
She completed her doctorate in education policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where her aim was to put the theory she was learning in the classroom to practice in the community.
A student of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire’s teachings, she said “systemic racism is the number one barrier Latinos, the African American community and other marginalized people face.”
Education, she said, is the path to “liberation and self-determination, self-reliance, and self-actualization.”
While Pacione-Zayas was finishing her degree, she worked in Little Village as the community schools director at Enlace, a nonprofit social service organization based on the South Side of Chicago. She helped to bring computer literacy, adult education, and youth enrichment programs into neighborhood schools.
She’s held several leadership roles, including the education director for the Latino Policy Forum and co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda, a nonprofit organization advocating for the Puerto Rican community.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, she led organizing efforts to secure local- and state-level resources to help those on the island but also for families relocating to Chicago, according to several news reports. She was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to serve as secretary for the Illinois State Board of Education, leaving that position before she became a state senator.
Most recently Pacione-Zayas was the vice president of policy at 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 her biography.
“She is a wonderful Latina advocate in the education space,” said Erika Méndez, associate director of education at the Latino Policy Forum. “We see her as an ally not just in education and health, but in human services and racial equity. She has the knowledge to really make something happen.”
One of the group’s advocacy issues is calling for policy that focuses on ensuring Latinos have access to early childhood development programs. Mendez said language barriers, the complexity of navigating those services, and no intentional outreach to Latinos, means that many children miss this important educational stepping stone.
According to the 2019 census data from Census Reporter, the 20th district is 53 percent Latino. Statewide the Latino population is 18.7 percent compared to 15.3 percent in 2010, while overall the Illinois population decreased by 0.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“As our population grows, our representation should grow,” Méndez said.
Pacione-Zayas said the community must hold Latinos in elected office accountable to ensure their work is advancing the voice and the needs of the people they represent.
The road to achieving legislation must include community involvement, which can make the process taxing but crucial because it’s “the people’s work,” said Pacione-Zayas, who holds several roundtables where community leaders give her feedback on legislative proposals.
A sense of urgency and excitement is embedded in her voice when she talks about her legislative goals.
“I’m going to do as much as I can to advance ideals around affordable housing, high quality early child care and education, access to comprehensive health services and of course addressing the root causes of violence,” she said.
Last spring, she led the passage of a bill that would establish a higher education consortium focused on creating a “streamline pathway for early childhood workforce.” She said the next step is to secure revenue sources so that the pay of early childhood educators is on par with K-12 teachers.
She said a utilization formula used to determine school funding needs to be corrected. She said schools that use space for mentoring services, clinics and parent universities are not getting the credit because they don’t have a traditional class setup.
Regarding affordable housing, she said an omnibus bill she supports would allocate $75 million each year toward incentivizing affordable housing construction.
No state legislator from Chicago can ignore the headlines that count the rising number of murders in the city.
“Violence is a huge issue in our city but we know that continuing to put money toward traditional law enforcement and punitive measures does not result in the outcomes that we want,” she said.
She said addressing people’s basic needs like housing, jobs with livable wages, addressing people's chronic health needs and challenges around mental health issues ought to be the priority.
Pacione-Zayas said thus far her experience as a freshman legislator has been exhausting like taking care of a newborn baby, but also exhilarating as when staying up late to finish an assignment for school. In the June primary, she’ll run as an incumbent and have an opportunity to cement the community's support for her style of “solutioning.”