Our Staff

Robin Steans

President
(312) 235-4538
rsteans@advanceillinois.org

Robin Steans is President of Advance Illinois, an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a healthy public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. She is also Board Chair of the Steans Family Foundation, where she helps guide education and community development grant making in the North Lawndale community.  A longtime public school parent, Robin Steans has spent over twenty years working on public school reform.  She served as Issues Director of the Small Schools Coalition, as Associate Director of Leadership for Quality Education, and taught at public high schools in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago before going on to earn her law degree.

Ms. Steans serves as a Trustee of the University of Chicago Medical Center, and is co-founder and past Board Chair of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago.  She helped found and currently serves as a Director of North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School, and has served on two Local School Councils.

Robin graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Brown University, received her master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, and attended law school at the University of Chicago, where she graduated cum laude and Order of the Coif. She is married and has three children, all of whom attended and graduated from Chicago Public Schools.

President
(312) 235-4538
rsteans@advanceillinois.org

Robin Steans is President of Advance Illinois, an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a healthy public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. She is also Board Chair of the Steans Family Foundation, where she helps guide education and community development grant making in the North Lawndale community.  A longtime public school parent, Robin Steans has spent over twenty years working on public school reform.  She served as Issues Director of the Small Schools Coalition, as Associate Director of Leadership for Quality Education, and taught at public high schools in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago before going on to earn her law degree.

Ms. Steans serves as a Trustee of the University of Chicago Medical Center, and is co-founder and past Board Chair of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago.  She helped found and currently serves as a Director of North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School, and has served on two Local School Councils.

Robin graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Brown University, received her master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, and attended law school at the University of Chicago, where she graduated cum laude and Order of the Coif. She is married and has three children, all of whom attended and graduated from Chicago Public Schools.

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Roderick Hawkins

Communications Director
(312) 734-1446
rhawkins@advanceillinois.org

Roderick Hawkins joined Advance Illinois in May 2019 to lead  communications, marketing and media outreach strategies for the nationally recognized public education thought leader.

Before joining Advance Illinois, Hawkins was Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Engagement in the office of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In this role he led the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement and connected Chicago residents to the Mayor’s Office through direct outreach, cultural events, and community forums on issues that impacted the city. While at City Hall, he was a key advisor on neighborhood investment, community relations and stakeholder engagement with an intentional focus on communities that have been historically underserved. Hawkins and his team also provided community outreach counsel to city departments and agencies.

Prior to the Emanuel administration, Hawkins was Vice President of External Affairs at the Chicago Urban League, one of the region’s largest civil rights and economic development organizations. Read More

Communications Director
(312) 734-1446
rhawkins@advanceillinois.org

Roderick Hawkins joined Advance Illinois in May 2019 to lead  communications, marketing and media outreach strategies for the nationally recognized public education thought leader.

Before joining Advance Illinois, Hawkins was Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Engagement in the office of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In this role he led the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement and connected Chicago residents to the Mayor’s Office through direct outreach, cultural events, and community forums on issues that impacted the city. While at City Hall, he was a key advisor on neighborhood investment, community relations and stakeholder engagement with an intentional focus on communities that have been historically underserved. Hawkins and his team also provided community outreach counsel to city departments and agencies.

Prior to the Emanuel administration, Hawkins was Vice President of External Affairs at the Chicago Urban League, one of the region’s largest civil rights and economic development organizations.

While at the Urban League, he led a rebranding of the organization as well as a strategy to increase its social media presence, stakeholder outreach and special event marketing. In addition, he represented the Urban League in the Illinois Unites for Marriage campaign, the statewide effort that secured marriage equality in Illinois prior to the historic 2015 Supreme Court ruling.

Before his tenure at the Chicago Urban League, Hawkins was the Director of Communications for the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, an agency created to restore the lives of families affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. From 2004 to 2006, he was the Deputy Press Secretary to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, where he played a major role in the communications response Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hawkins was the Communications Associate at The Chicago Community Trust from 2001 to 2004. While there led the launch the Trust’s philanthropic initiatives in the African American and Latino communities.

Roderick Hawkins’ civic engagement includes serving on the national board of directors of Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest legal organization serving the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV and the iHEART Media Chicago Local Advisory Board. In 2018 he was recognized as one of Chicago’s notable LGBTQ executives in Crain’s Chicago Business.

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Hawkins is a graduate of Louisiana State University.

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Ann Whalen

Policy Director
awhalen@advanceillinois.org

Ann Whalen leads the Policy Team at Advance Illinois. Prior to joining AI, Ann was the Associate Chief of Academics at Denver Public Schools, responsible for leading central Academic teams, to ensure that every day, every Denver Public Schools’ student received a rigorous, standards-based learning experience that prepares him or her for college and career. In this role, she oversaw the teams responsible for academic strategy; curriculum and instruction; professional learning; accountability, assessment and evaluation; library services, extended learning, education technology and competency based learning.

From 2015-2017, Ann served under Arne Duncan and John King as the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the US Department of Education, where she led and coordinated policy for programs designed to assist state and local education agencies with improving the achievement of elementary and secondary school students. Read More

Policy Director
awhalen@advanceillinois.org

Ann Whalen leads the Policy Team at Advance Illinois. Prior to joining AI, Ann was the Associate Chief of Academics at Denver Public Schools, responsible for leading central Academic teams, to ensure that every day, every Denver Public Schools’ student received a rigorous, standards-based learning experience that prepares him or her for college and career. In this role, she oversaw the teams responsible for academic strategy; curriculum and instruction; professional learning; accountability, assessment and evaluation; library services, extended learning, education technology and competency based learning.

From 2015-2017, Ann served under Arne Duncan and John King as the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the US Department of Education, where she led and coordinated policy for programs designed to assist state and local education agencies with improving the achievement of elementary and secondary school students. As Acting Assistant Secretary, she managed a team that administered over $22.3 billion, with more than 80 grant programs designed to ensure equal access to a high-quality education for all preschool, elementary and secondary children, particularly the economically disadvantaged. From 2014 to 2015, Ann served as Director of Policy at Education Post. Prior to that, Ann served in various roles at the US Department of Education, first as a Special Assistant in the Office of the Secretary from 2009 to 2010, then as the Director of the Implementation and Support Unit from 2010 to 2014.

Before she joined the Obama Administration, Ann served as Deputy to the Chief Education Officer at Chicago Public Schools from 2006 to 2009 and as the Deputy Director of Special Initiatives for the Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Public Schools from 2003 to 2006. From 2002 to 2003, she was a Project Administrator at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. Ann was born and raised in Chicago and lives with her family on the city’s west side.

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Jill Gottfred-Sohoni

Director of Community Engagement
jgottfredsohoni@advanceillinois.org

Jill comes to Advance Illinois as an educator, parent, advocate, and graduate of Illinois public schools. As the current Director of Community Engagement, Jill specializes in building out strong and diverse coalitions of stakeholders who advocate for policy changes that aim to ensure ALL students graduate ready for college and careers. Prior to Advance, Jill served as the Director, Illinois & Northwest Indiana at Leadership for Educational Equity, where she worked with educators to make systemic change toward educational equity through policy leadership, collective action and elected leadership. Read More

Director of Community Engagement
jgottfredsohoni@advanceillinois.org

Jill comes to Advance Illinois as an educator, parent, advocate, and graduate of Illinois public schools. As the current Director of Community Engagement, Jill specializes in building out strong and diverse coalitions of stakeholders who advocate for policy changes that aim to ensure ALL students graduate ready for college and careers. Prior to Advance, Jill served as the Director, Illinois & Northwest Indiana at Leadership for Educational Equity, where she worked with educators to make systemic change toward educational equity through policy leadership, collective action and elected leadership. Jill also worked with parents and legislators at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools to ensure strong public education policies at the district and state levels.

Jill started her career as a middle school teacher in East New York, Brooklyn. Since then, Jill graduated cum laude from New York Law School focused on civil rights and education law, and earned a masters in Childhood Education from Pace University. Her undergraduate studies focused on Social Work and Criminal Justice, and she is a trained restorative justice peace circle keeper.

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Melissa Figueira

Senior Policy Associate
(312) 784-9403
mfigueira@advanceillinois.org

Melissa Figueira was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she attended public schools before moving to New York City to study Political Science and Sociology at Columbia University. She earned her Masters Degree in Education Policy from Teachers College at Columbia University, with a focus on K-12 Education. Read More

Senior Policy Associate
(312) 784-9403
mfigueira@advanceillinois.org

Melissa Figueira was born and raised in Miami, Florida, where she attended public schools before moving to New York City to study Political Science and Sociology at Columbia University. She earned her Masters Degree in Education Policy from Teachers College at Columbia University, with a focus on K-12 Education. Her interest in advocacy and her firm belief in the need for comprehensive educational opportunity for all children grew out of several years of volunteering as an art teacher and summer school teacher in both Florida City and Harlem. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Melissa worked with the Research and Policy Support Group at the New York City Department of Education.

 

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Jessica Ramos

Community Organizing Strategy Associate
(312) 784-9418
jramos@advanceillinois.org

Jessica Ramos, a Chicago native raised on the city’s South Side, is a former educator committed to advocating for underserved communities with experience spanning from rural Colorado to Illinois.  Read More

Community Organizing Strategy Associate
(312) 784-9418
jramos@advanceillinois.org

Jessica Ramos, a Chicago native raised on the city’s South Side, is a former educator committed to advocating for underserved communities with experience spanning from rural Colorado to Illinois. Jessica is a proud first generation graduate of Chicago Public Schools. She studied Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, Jessica covered the activist community and built unity within Latina/o students through her involvement at La Casa Cultural Latina. Her education experience allowed her to see the urgency to organize for access to a quality education system that uplifts and meets the needs of all communities despite their zip code.

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Ja’Neane Minor

Director of Government Relations
(312) 667-9105
jminor@advanceillinois.org

Ja’Neane Minor plays a pivotal role in legislative strategy as well as keeping our team abreast on the latest happenings at the Capitol. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Ja’Neane served as a project manager for a management consulting firm. Earlier in her career, she advocated for education in multiple capacities.  Read More

Director of Government Relations
(312) 667-9105
jminor@advanceillinois.org

Ja’Neane Minor plays a pivotal role in legislative strategy as well as keeping our team abreast on the latest happenings at the Capitol. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Ja’Neane served as a project manager for a management consulting firm. Earlier in her career, she advocated for education in multiple capacities. Ja’Neane is a proud alumna of Indiana University, has been married to her husband, Quinn, for 20 years, and is the mother of three children.

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Jim O’Connor

Project Director
(312) 235-4537
joconnor@advanceillinois.org  

Jim O’Connor grew up on a farm near Kankakee, Illinois and has degrees from University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and National Louis University.  Before joining Advance Illinois, Jim was a Noble Street Charter School teacher, and the founding principal at KIPP Ascend Charter School in Chicago, where he was a principal for six years.  Read More

Project Director
(312) 235-4537
joconnor@advanceillinois.org  

Jim O’Connor grew up on a farm near Kankakee, Illinois and has degrees from University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, and National Louis University.  Before joining Advance Illinois, Jim was a Noble Street Charter School teacher, and the founding principal at KIPP Ascend Charter School in Chicago, where he was a principal for six years.  Jim was also the Executive Director of Student Services at School District U-46 in Illinois, where he administered SES tutoring for 1,000 students.  Jim is an elected school board member in an elementary school district with about 5,600 students (including his two children) in Oak Park, Illinois. Jim works to ensure that every student has the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

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Jessica Rosolowski

Office Manager / Executive Assistant
(312) 235-4531
jrosolowski@advanceillinois.org

Jessica Rosolowski grew up on the south side of Chicago and is a graduate of Illinois public schools.  She attended South Suburban College for Paralegal Studies where she obtained her paralegal certificate.  Read More

Office Manager / Executive Assistant
(312) 235-4531
jrosolowski@advanceillinois.org

Jessica Rosolowski grew up on the south side of Chicago and is a graduate of Illinois public schools.  She attended South Suburban College for Paralegal Studies where she obtained her paralegal certificate.  Before joining Advance Illinois, Jessica worked at the Fraternal Order of Police for nearly 11 years as an advocate to Chicago police officers.  She is also the proud mother of two sons.

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Helen Zhang

Policy Associate
(312) 734-1445
hzhang@advanceillinois.org

Helen Zhang grew up in Seattle before moving to study Public Policy at the University of Chicago, with a specialization on children and families. She gained research experience as an education policy intern at the Brookings Institution and through her undergraduate thesis, which explored the role of social supports in students’ transitions to high school.  Read More

Policy Associate
(312) 734-1445
hzhang@advanceillinois.org

Helen Zhang grew up in Seattle before moving to study Public Policy at the University of Chicago, with a specialization on children and families. She gained research experience as an education policy intern at the Brookings Institution and through her undergraduate thesis, which explored the role of social supports in students’ transitions to high school. While at UChicago, Helen also created a Model United Nations accessibility program for Chicago Public Schools students, which involved launching free workshops, developing financial aid packages, and overseeing conference logistics for program participants. Helen’s experiences working directly with students and in research have given her a strong dedication to creating equitable opportunities for all children.

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