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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Kristienne Hanna

Development Director
(312) 235-4533
khanna@advanceillinois.org

Kristienne Hanna joined Advance Illinois as Director of Development in 2019 with the primary focus of growing the organization’s fundraising efforts. Through her prior work as a fundraising operations director and grants consultant, she gained extensive experience generating revenue streams to develop and sustain critical, life-changing programs for social service, healthcare and workforce development organizations. Kristienne serves on the board of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, most recently as the chapter president, and is an active mom of three children just beginning their school years. She is a graduate of Drake University and holds an advanced degree in business from North Park University.

Development Director
(312) 235-4533
khanna@advanceillinois.org

Kristienne Hanna joined Advance Illinois as Director of Development in 2019 with the primary focus of growing the organization’s fundraising efforts. Through her prior work as a fundraising operations director and grants consultant, she gained extensive experience generating revenue streams to develop and sustain critical, life-changing programs for social service, healthcare and workforce development organizations. Kristienne serves on the board of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, most recently as the chapter president, and is an active mom of three children just beginning their school years. She is a graduate of Drake University and holds an advanced degree in business from North Park University.

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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 Ramos

Director of Community Engagement
(312) 784-9418
jramos@advanceillinois.org

Jessica leads the Community Engagement team at Advance Illinois. As a proud first generation Chicana with roots stemming from the south west side of Chicago, she is committed to elevating the experiences of Black, Brown, and communities traditionally marginalized to advance equity in education. With experience spanning from Colorado to Illinois, Jessica sees the urgency to organize to disrupt the inequities that continue to impact our communities.
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Director of Community Engagement
(312) 784-9418
jramos@advanceillinois.org

Jessica leads the Community Engagement team at Advance Illinois. As a proud first generation Chicana with roots stemming from the south west side of Chicago, she is committed to elevating the experiences of Black, Brown, and communities traditionally marginalized to advance equity in education. With experience spanning from Colorado to Illinois, Jessica sees the urgency to organize to disrupt the inequities that continue to impact our communities.

She is committed to systemic change in education that addresses barriers and uplifts communities to access the opportunities our communities need to thrive. During her time at Advance Illinois, she has focused on elevating and centering the voices of communities across the state that have been marginalized by the policy making process. She manages the organization’s Educator Advisory Council, executes on coalition strategy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion work on key education issues.

Jessica studied journalism with concentrations in Latinx studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While there, she covered issues relating to the Black and Latinx experience at the university and built unity within the Latinx student community through her involvement at La Casa Cultural Latina. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, Jessica taught 6th and 8th grade language arts, as well as 9th grade multicultural studies.

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Ann Whalen

Policy Director
awhalen@advanceillinois.org

Ann Whalen leads the policy team at Advance Illinois. Prior to joining Advance Illinois, 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 Advance Illinois, 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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Taryn Williams

Director of Communications
twilliams@advanceillinois.org

Taryn Williams leads the communications team at Advance Illinois.

From Fox & Friends to Time Magazine, Taryn is a media maven, garnering national and local media coverage for major brands such as McDonald’s, Harley Davidson and M&M’s. During her five-year stint in the Chicago office of global PR firm, Weber Shandwick, she was a sought after team member, developing strategic media angles to pierce even the toughest of publications. As one of the founding members of the Got Milk? social media team, Taryn and team oversaw content development for the brand’s emerging social media pages. At Burrell Communications, one the world’s most prominent multicultural marketing firms, she served as a program lead on McDonald’s and Toyota, managing client and media relations.
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Director of Communications
twilliams@advanceillinois.org

Taryn Williams leads the communications team at Advance Illinois.

From Fox & Friends to Time Magazine, Taryn is a media maven, garnering national and local media coverage for major brands such as McDonald’s, Harley Davidson and M&M’s. During her five-year stint in the Chicago office of global PR firm, Weber Shandwick, she was a sought after team member, developing strategic media angles to pierce even the toughest of publications. As one of the founding members of the Got Milk? social media team, Taryn and team oversaw content development for the brand’s emerging social media pages. At Burrell Communications, one the world’s most prominent multicultural marketing firms, she served as a program lead on McDonald’s and Toyota, managing client and media relations.

As a respected and trusted advisor to the brand, Taryn played a pivotal role in the creation of McDonald’s first ever at Burrell, she created and executed the award-winning PR program, McCafe Grind. Locally, Taryn has oversaw and executed communications strategies for emerging healthcare and security clients as well as state legislatures. She has secured coverage in major local and national media outlets such as Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony Magazine, Good Day Chicago, and the Washington Post to name a few. Taryn is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri – Columbia as well as Illinois school districts 132 and 218. She is also the proud mother of a CPS student and resides on the northwest side of Chicago.

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Christi Chadwick

Senior Policy Advisor
cchadwick@advanceillinois.org

As a member of the policy team, Christi supports Advance Illinois’ work in early childhood. Christi has spent over 20 years focused on advancing high-quality early learning opportunities for young children, particularly those from under-resourced communities. Prior to her work at Advance Illinois, Christi worked in roles in Colorado and Illinois where she focused on issues related to developing, strengthening, and better compensating the early childhood workforce in positions such as Workforce Development Policy Director in the Illinois Governor’s Office for Early Childhood Development and Early Learning Policy Director in the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office. Additionally, Christi has worked on initiatives to ensure high-quality environments for young children, including serving as District Director for Child Development at City Colleges of Chicago, where she led the restructuring of five urban child development laboratory centers.
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Senior Policy Advisor
cchadwick@advanceillinois.org

As a member of the policy team, Christi supports Advance Illinois’ work in early childhood. Christi has spent over 20 years focused on advancing high-quality early learning opportunities for young children, particularly those from under-resourced communities. Prior to her work at Advance Illinois, Christi worked in roles in Colorado and Illinois where she focused on issues related to developing, strengthening, and better compensating the early childhood workforce in positions such as Workforce Development Policy Director in the Illinois Governor’s Office for Early Childhood Development and Early Learning Policy Director in the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office. Additionally, Christi has worked on initiatives to ensure high-quality environments for young children, including serving as District Director for Child Development at City Colleges of Chicago, where she led the restructuring of five urban child development laboratory centers.
Christi began her career teaching kindergarten and has experience teaching college and mentoring student teachers. Christi received her bachelor’s and master’s in early childhood education from the University of North Texas, and her master’s of public policy from the Harris School at the University of Chicago, where she was an Irving B. Harris Child and Family Policy Fellow.

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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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José L. García

Communications Associate
jgarcia@advanceillinois.org

Born and raised in Chicago, José García began his professional career as an English teacher and college counselor at the very high school he graduated from. José is passionate about ensuring that all students have equal access to the opportunity of getting to and through college.

After teaching for two years and obtaining his Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Relay Graduate School of Education, José moved south to the state of Texas to pursue his dream of working in broadcast journalism. He was an anchor and reporter at a local ABC affiliate. Read More

Communications Associate
jgarcia@advanceillinois.org

Born and raised in Chicago, José García began his professional career as an English teacher and college counselor at the very high school he graduated from. José is passionate about ensuring that all students have equal access to the opportunity of getting to and through college.

After teaching for two years and obtaining his Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Relay Graduate School of Education, José moved south to the state of Texas to pursue his dream of working in broadcast journalism. He was an anchor and reporter at a local ABC affiliate.

José moved back home a few months later and joined Acero Schools, the second-largest charter school network in the city, as a public affairs specialist. While at Acero Schools, José spearheaded the organization’s multimedia marketing efforts for brand awareness, recruitment, and enrollment.

Before joining the Advance Illinois team in February 2020, José was deputy press secretary in the Office of Communications at Chicago Public Schools.

José graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

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Helen Zhang

Senior Policy & Analytics 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

Senior Policy & Analytics 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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