Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia describes herself, first and foremost, as the daughter of Joe and Debbie Valencia. The 32-year-old, second-generation Mexican-American grew up in Granite City, Illinois—a town with 30,000 people and three steel mills.
Prior to assuming office in January 2017, Valencia earned her bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and served as the second woman and first Latina to run Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs.
Valencia has worked as a political professional in various campaign capacities for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL., state Senate President John Cullerton, as well as Congressmen Mike Quigley and Gary Peters.
The Chronicle spoke with Valencia about growing up in a working class family and women in politics.
THE CHRONICLE: What was your childhood like?
ANNA VALENCIA: From a young age, I saw my parents being community leaders and activists because they care about their community. My mom actually lost her job when Illinois couldn’t pass a budget. But she didn’t get bitter, she just picked herself back up. She’s a breast cancer survivor, so she’s been through [a lot] of things in her life that have kind of helped her have resilience.
My dad is on dialysis four times a day at 60, but still works every day 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the heat, never complains and still works side jobs for extra money. I take that spirit, and I tell people this because the same way I grew up is seen in Chicago. A lot of working families have those same struggles, whether it’s health care struggles, job security or not being paid a living wage.
Sometimes people look at me and think, “She’s Latina, she’s a woman” or “she must have it all figured out, she’s put together,” but I’m really not. What’s dynamic about where we are right now in our political structure is we don’t share these stories. There is not enough conversation happening around tables, and we make assumptions about what people think or who they are based on what we’re looking at, but it’s really about getting to each other’s stories and understanding where we can find common ground.
What kind of adversity have you overcome throughout your career?
Finding confidence as a leader. As women, we struggle with this a little bit more than men. I did not struggle with confidence my whole life, but as I moved up the ladder, I became one of the very few women in the room, or the only woman of color in the room. You kind of shrink a little bit. You have confidence outside the room, but then inside the room, there’s a self-doubt and also Imposter Syndrome. I’ll think, “Do I really deserve to be here? Do I really know what I’m talking about?” But I have an awesome support system. I have wonderful friends and other women leaders who have been helpful with how to build that confidence.
Individuals at your January City Council swearing in ceremony made comments about your good looks. Did that bother you?
It didn’t bother me as much as it bothered my friends and my husband. I don’t let it bother me. I just say, “Thank you for the compliment,” and I move on because I do not want this conversation about my looks. I don’t want to make that a centerpiece. I want it to be more about what we’re doing and who I am and how I am this leader. Actions speak louder than words and I’m going to prove to you who I am—that I’m not just a pretty face, that I’m not just put here because I’m a latina trying to win the vote for the mayor. No, I’m Anna Valencia. I’m the daughter of Joe and Debbie Valencia from Granite City. I am now the only citywide female elected official. I’m proud of those things, and I’m going to hold my own I do think that it’s not fair. It’s definitely not fair to have to work harder and run in my high heels to catch up faster.
What is your advice to young women who want to go into politics?
To women in general, don’t listen to the distractions and people say you can’t or that you don’t have that extra degree. There is no qualification to run for office. You can make an impact from a lot of different places. For me, I felt that I could make a huge impact in government because we need more leaders that are leading from the heart, that are compassionate and have integrity, that are actively listening and are inclusive—building policies from the ground up and not the top down. We can’t repeat the same mistakes. Women have to step out of their comfort zones, get their confidence, and they have to run. They can’t keep waiting. There’s never a perfect time.
How have men talked to you during your career?
I just really tune it out. When I see something I didn’t feel comfortable with, I usually confront that person one-on-one. Sometimes men don’t understand what they’re doing, and we have to have allies.... Senator Dick Durbin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Senate President John Cullerton have been really good to me. They did not undercut me but put me in positions of power and have even empowered me to be in that position.