Building community through government and educational opportunity
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I am the oldest of three children born to Robert and Donna Anderson. By the time I was five, we were living in Jackson, Tennessee, the fourth of 12 cities I would call home. Later that year, my parents divorced. Over the next 13 years, my mother’s transfers relocated the family from Lafayette, Louisiana, to a number of other southern cities until finally landing in Antioch, Tennessee, where we remained until I graduated high school.
I grew up in a blue-collar home, and it was not lost on my mother to impart upon my siblings and me the importance of hard work, honesty and sense of community that is realized from real-world experience. Of all my memories, one specifically sticks in my mind and really shaped my understanding about the importance of community. When a vacant lot near our house was constantly covered with trash, year after year, my mother took us over on weekends to fill garbage bags and mow the grass. She wanted us to understand that part of being a good community member was pitching in when you saw a need. Undoubtedly, her influence on my life was profound. I would not be the person I am today without her exemplary work ethic and dedication to serving others.
Tell us about your educational background.
When I graduated from Antioch High School in 1987, I received an academic scholarship to what is now the University of Memphis, where I majored in political science and minored in sociology. In college, I served as an elected member of our university senate, an officer in the College Republicans, a participant in the Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature program and member of our Midwest Model United Nations debate team. I was also active in the Sigma Kappa sorority. Upon completion of my bachelor’s degree, I received a graduate assistantship at Western Kentucky University, where I also completed my MPA degree. During those two years at WKU, I realized my passion for government—especially local government.
What led you to Peoria?
In May of 1993, I began working for [Peoria] City Manager Peter Korn. The knowledge and skills I learned while serving under Peter and his incredible staff are invaluable to this day. It was during that first year in Peoria that I met Peter Coyle, a local insurance agent, at the Jaycees International Beer Festival. We had our first date the next night, attending the Robert Cray concert at the Madison Theater. Two years later we married, and we have been happily married 21 years.
I then moved to the Police Department as their new management analyst, and spent a little less than two years there before moving to a position as contracts and grants administrator for the Children’s Home. For the next five years, I worked for Arlene Happach in the accounting office, coordinating our state and federal grants and preparing our annual budget. Arlene was one of a handful of female mentors over the years that took a keen interest in aiding my professional and personal development.
Tell us about your wealth of political experience at the local, state and national levels.
While I had worked on campaigns since high school, Peoria afforded me a unique opportunity to become politically involved. In 2003, I met Aaron Schock at the home of our mutual friends, Dallas and Caryl D’hondt. Shortly after he was elected to the state legislature in 2004, I took a part-time job as his constituent outreach coordinator for the 92nd House District. I spent a year staffing neighborhood associations in the 92nd District, speaking to constituents about enrolling in state programs, and overseeing his Capitol Classroom program. Helping people understand the intricacies of local and state government and aiding them through the bureaucratic maze was very fulfilling.
About a year later, I was sitting in an Alzheimer’s Association board meeting when a fellow board member, Dr. Bill Hall, asked if I would ever consider teaching political science at the college level. I jumped at the opportunity, thinking I could juggle both part-time jobs with young children at home. I loved teaching, but after a few months the two part-time jobs became too much, and I resigned my position as constituent outreach coordinator to focus on teaching state and local government at Bradley.
During the summer of 2007, while teaching at Bradley, I received a call from Rep. Schock asking if we could catch up over coffee. He explained he was going to run for Congress and wanted me on his campaign team. I started work a month later as his field director. After Aaron was elected in 2008, I returned to teaching and thought I was finished with politics.
In 2011, I saw the need for new ideas and renewed energy in our local party. I wanted to build a bigger tent in Peoria by focusing on what united Republicans, not what divided them. I took the reins as party chairman in 2012, and when I left in 2016, we had twice the number of committeemen and more than double the money in the bank. We also secured the Illinois State Convention coming to Peoria for the first time in almost 30 years. I take great pride in what my team accomplished during my years as chair.
Describe your 2015 run for Peoria City Council, including the challenges and lessons learned.
After six years as an elected trustee for Illinois Central College, I made the decision in 2009 not to seek re-election to the ICC Board and to instead pursue an at-large position on the Peoria City Council. This ranks near the top of the most intimidating things I have ever done. I ended up running against five incumbents, several of whom raised three times the amount of money I did. While campaign money doesn’t guarantee a win, it does impact a candidate’s ability to communicate with voters.
Running for office was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I met the most amazing people during those months campaigning, and many of those encounters reshaped my views and transformed me personally. There is a famous saying: “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” One of those blessings was having my daughters watch me take a big chance on a dream, fight hard for it, lose with grace, and then resume life with no regrets.
The night I left the election commission after losing, I walked into my kitchen feeling exhausted. I said, “Kids, I tried and I lost.” My youngest daughter looked at me and put it all in perspective with her words. She replied, “But Mom, you were the only one in this whole city who stepped up to run against the five incumbents. That takes guts, and you should be proud of yourself.”
More people should step up and run for office. My wish for Peoria is that more people would take the plunge and make their voices heard.
Any future plans to run for office?
At this time in my life, I couldn’t imagine wanting to step back into that ring for two reasons. First, we are blessed with a great group of elected leaders in Peoria right now, many of whom still have a fresh set of eyes to look at our problems and come up with solutions. Second, I am busy working full-time for an organization that I not only love, but one that can be a catalyst for instrumental change.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
Dancer, singer, teacher, attorney, FBI agent, roller derby athlete, judge and even POTUS!
If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
Give most of it away to a handful of causes near and dear to my heart. With what is left over, I would buy my sister a new car and pay for her nursing school, take my entire extended family on a vacation, and renovate our kitchen.
What is on your bucket list?
Drive a race car and visit Spain.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Resilient, authentic, determined.
So tell us about your work with Alignment Peoria.
Alignment is a neutral, community-based collective impact organization created to support the strategic goals of Peoria Public Schools. Like any new organization, the big challenges are educating the community about what we are, while tempering expectations. My concern is that impatience will supersede understanding of the long-term benefits of doing this right.
Alignment isn’t about quick fixes. Alignment is about transformational change to address the wicked problems facing public education. It is a proven model that has worked in numerous urban areas around the country. Our community must be prepared to go slow at times, be intentional, and be receptive to doing things differently—in ways that may at times be uncomfortable, but will develop the collective culture to support systematic change in order for Alignment to flourish and be successful.
The Metropolitan Nashville school system realized a 20-point increase in high school graduation rates in 10 years using the Alignment model. I’m optimistic Peoria can achieve similar results in time. Our Governing Board has created both a “Student Health” team and “College and Career Readiness” team which are actively reviewing data and will soon begin looking at tactics to address the strategic needs of the district. I’m excited about the creative ideas which will emerge from the work of both teams.
Please reflect upon some of your major accomplishments of recent years.
The greatest achievement I could ever attain would be to see my daughters grow up into young adults who care about their community and understand the contributions they can make to the world through their professional and volunteer commitments. That aside, there are a couple of accomplishments that I am very proud of.
I served as chairman of the Illinois Central College Board of Trustees from May 2013 to May 2014, during which time we had several challenges. First among them was to balance a budget with shrinking state funds, a flat property tax base and a desire by most of our board not to raise tuition on students while still keeping competitive salaries to maintain our outstanding staff. That turned out to be easier than the challenge that came later in the fall with trustee Tim Elder’s resignation. Finding a replacement mid-term was difficult. As board chair, I had to research the multiple methodologies available to replace an elected official, oversee the integrity of the process, and make sure we came out of the process with a great replacement—without discouraging those who were not selected from running in the future.
Politically speaking, while I am proud of my accomplishments as chair of the party, my eight years on the board of the Illinois Lincoln Series—training women from around the state to run for office—is something of which I am extremely proud. Our organization has trained many women who are now serving around the state on city councils, county boards and in the Illinois legislature. We need more women in public service, and I put a great deal of time into pushing that mission and seeing it come to fruition.
What are some other causes that are near and dear to you?
I have had the opportunity to champion numerous causes over the last 24 years, but my years on the Alzheimer’s Association Board were rewarding because of the devastation I know the disease can cause in families. The “long goodbye” that families of Alzheimer’s patients live through is horrendous—and I have seen its impact first-hand. It is the one medical condition that keeps me awake at night and worries me about my children’s future. My work as a board member, board officer and founding member of the fourth Alzheimer’s Women’s Association for Resources and Education in the country count among the contributions of which I am most proud.
In addition, I will tell you that life-threatening food allergies have had an enormous impact on our family. One of our daughters has gone into anaphylactic shock five times from exposure to peanuts or tree nuts hidden in everyday food items. Education about food allergy risks, prevention strategies and emergency planning for school leaders, parents, students, restaurants and others is a major priority for my husband and me. We hope that any awareness we can bring to our community about this very serious condition will prevent other families from dealing with the same challenges.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I am still a work in progress on this issue. I think having a supportive spouse and children who encourage you to pursue hobbies, spend time with friends and be everything you dream of helps. I’m also blessed with numerous girlfriends who do balance everything well, and I try to watch, reflect and learn from their good habits.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
I’m still learning how to take care of myself without feeling guilty. I think women in particular take care of everyone else first, and if they have anything left over, they tend to themselves. I’m growing, in terms of identifying when I’m overly tired, overly taxed and need to take a walk, go to yoga or just lie on the couch and let the to-do list get longer while I’m refueling. iBi