MEET TONANTZIN

A YOUNG PROFESSIONAL tackling politics to advocate for others

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ON DEALING WITH CULTURE SHOCK:

"Though I grew up in Chicago and most of my family lives there, I attended a boarding school in Milton, Massachusetts for high school. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship and made most of the opportunity, but I certainly experienced culture shock. Not only was I far away from home at the young age of 14, but I also went from attending a school with a student body that was predominantly Mexican to one that was not. I remember feeling out of place – not understanding my classmates’ fashion choices (I was confused by all the pastels and plaid), the slang (it took me forever to understand what “wicked” meant), and the references to a new pop culture. I remember students not understanding my fashion choices (like hoop earrings), my slang (many people asked me to define “no manches”), or MY pop culture references (like when I mentioned Selena or Juan Gabriel). 

In the end, I would describe culture shock as a mix of “studying abroad” while simultaneously deciding whether to adopt the values and norms of the dominant campus culture, or to choose to live authentically as myself. Ultimately, I was always proud of who I was and where I came from, and I chose not to shy away from that. This experience at such an early age helped inform future transitions in life and helped me learn a few things about myself: I am strong, I am resilient, and I am comfortable with being uncomfortable."

"I am strong, I am resilient, and I am comfortable with being uncomfortable."

DIVING INTO A LEADERSHIP ROLE:

"Aside from attending boarding school for high school, the second biggest leap I made in my life to live outside of my comfort zone was when I became Director of the Office of New Americans (ONA) at the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office when I was only 24 years old. Chicago is the third largest city in the country, and managing an office dedicated to making Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world was no easy task.

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When I was first presented with the opportunity to lead ONA, I considered turning it down out of fear that I might fail. Today, I am very glad that I didn’t. Instead, I chose to read books about leadership, team management, public speaking and apply those skills I learned. Rather than beat myself up whenever I made a mistake, I took those moments to reflect and see where I could improve next time. Lastly, I learned to focus on what I was delivering, who I was delivering for, and most importantly, who would be impacted by my work, not on what others would think of me. This challenge has definitely made me a stronger leader and a more confident individual.

I took those lessons that I learned as Director of ONA in my future roles where I also felt I was outside of my comfort zone, including working in press for Senator Elizabeth Warren. Even though press wasn’t my area of expertise the way that policy development was, I took a chance to learn a new skillset and to continue pushing through feeling uncomfortable so that I could deliver for my boss and the people we were serving. Now, as the Chief of Policy for the City Clerk, I am tasked with helping our Office launch a government-issued ID for Chicagoans. There are many days when I doubt myself. In those moments, I think back to those previous experiences and it’s always helpful to remember that despite many obstacles, I was always able to pull through and come out stronger."

"Rather than beat myself up whenever I made a mistake, I took those moments to reflect and see where I could improve next time."

BEING STRONG IN ASKING FOR HELP:

"I am a survivor of domestic violence. My toughest fall was being in an abusive relationship and not seeing a way out. That said, I am grateful for my ability to get out of that relationship and to speak out against domestic violence. Not everyone is as fortunate, and for many reasons, not everyone is able to get out of an abusive relationship.

After that experience, I learned that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak, it actually means you’re strong. I also learned that staying in an abusive relationship doesn’t make you weak either, and so people shouldn’t judge others who aren’t able to leave. Lastly, I learned that I have an amazing network of wonderful people in my life, and I am grateful that they were there to support me and help me gain the inner strength I needed to walk away."

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ON LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK UP:

"When you are working in government, your ability to speak up and advocate for others becomes more critical, as your words and your ability to persuade others to pursue (or not pursue) an issue can truly impact people’s lives. I am ashamed for the moments when I let my own fears of failure get the best of me, leading to my quietness about an issue, because I was afraid others in my professional setting would judge me for it. That is why, after a few more years of experience, I have made it a point to be direct and honest whenever possible, to sit at the table, and to make my voice heard."

"I have made it a point to be direct and honest whenever possible, to sit at the table, and to make my voice heard."

ON EMBRACING DIVERSITY:

"I used to suffer from a severe case of imposter syndrome. Because I have often been the only woman or the only Latina in a lot of academic or professional spaces, I have often thought to myself: What am I doing here? What do I know about any of this? What if I do not find the right answers, or worse, make a fool of myself?  

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What I wish I had learned sooner is that I add value to the different spaces I am in because of, not in spite of, those things that make me different from others or the rest of my team. For example, I always knew that diversity mattered, but it was not until working in government that I recognized the impact: diversity can lead to new insights and creativity, which is critical in government as resources become scarce and the country’s demographics continue to shift.

I took those lessons in valuing diversity and different perspective and applied them to my set of professional responsibilities. Every policy and program developed through my work as ONA Director or as Chief of Policy to the City Clerk includes an advisory committee of community stakeholders, academic, philanthropic, and civic institutions, the private sector, legal service providers, City departments and other units of government. Bringing multiple voices to the table certainly makes reaching a consensus harder; but in the end, the policies developed are more effective because they are informed by the experiences of our communities."

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A LINEAGE OF PUBLIC ACTIVISM:

"My introduction to government was as my grandmother’s mini-interpreter when I accompanied her to government meetings, public hearings and appointments. Though she did not speak English, she was adamant to be part of public meetings, to observe the policy making process, and to advocate for her community whenever possible. Later, when I helped create Chicago’s first Language Access Ordinance together with community stakeholders and City departments, I thought of my grandmother. Those recollections were instrumental in helping me consider what this ordinance should look like, ensuring our policy would enable residents to read and understand basic information in their own language, empowering them to engage with government."


fun facts ABOUT tonantzin carmona

WMW: Do you have a daily routine?
T: I walk to work every day. The walk ends up being around 3 miles total, but I really enjoy that time in the morning to gather my thoughts and set goals for the day and week.

WMW: What's the best thing about you, according to you?
T: I am absolutely in love with books. It’s an obsession that I have had since I was young, and I currently read about one book a week. I read books in the morning, before bed, and even as I walk. I also spend a lot of time at libraries and bookstores, and I currently live above a bookstore.

WMW: What's something people don't know about you?
T: I never got my driver’s license. Once I graduated, I took full advantage of Chicago’s public transportation system.