2022 Distinguished Alumni- Karina Villa
Karina Villa- Class of 1996
When Karina Villa reflects on the results of the 2016 General Election, the word “heartbreak” crosses her lips. Instead of asking, “Who is going to do something?”, she made up her mind to run for State Representative for Illinois District 49. There was one problem. No Democrat, let alone a Latina, had ever been elected to represent Illinois District 49.
Karina gathered her family, close friends, colleagues, and fellow District 33 School Board members to imagine the impossible: a successful campaign to capture House District 49. After hours of strategizing, dreaming and doubting, friend and Board of Education member, Dave Barclay, said, “Ok, let’s do it!”
Her team, led by Barclay, included her mom and dad, former students and teachers in West Chicago, college and high school friends, SASED associates, and neighbors. Team Villa began knocking on doors nine months before the 2018 election, signing up more campaign workers along the way. On Election Day, November 6th, Karina Villa beat her Republican opponent, by 8 percentage points. Representative Villa was headed to Springfield.
She went right to work serving her new constituents and visiting farms, schools, and manufacturers throughout the 49th District. She focused on listening to their concerns to effectively represent their needs in Springfield while her office was providing assistance to alleviate their concerns. Rep. Villa met with the freshman women of the Illinois House of Representatives to take on a challenge they were told would never get the votes to pass. They were determined to codify the right to reproductive healthcare for all in Illinois. On June 12, 2019, three years before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Governor Pritzker signed into law the Illinois Reproductive Health Act.
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Karina’s parents both immigrated from Mexico as young adults, met in West Chicago and married. They worked hard to set up a life together and start a family. Before Karina had finished elementary school at Indian Knoll, Emma and Antonio Villa had opened their own grocery store, La Villita, the first of six small businesses where Karina and her younger brother stocked shelves, kept track of inventory and assisted the community with advice and job referrals. From age 13 to 25 Karina served as the buyer for their family grocery, jewelry and clothing stores.
It was not surprising that at school as in her life outside of school, when Karina saw a need, she found a way to fill it, including assisting Spanish speaking families to register their children at District 33 elementary schools. She was bilingual, and even as a young teen, she knew how to get things done.
At West Chicago Community High School Karina joined SADD, Peer Listeners, International Club, Band, and the Wildcat Swim Team. She started Latina Club and the WeGo Spanish Newspaper. She organized a Youth Group Dance at her church, St. Mary’s, and a Latino Formal Dance for graduates and their parents at Wheaton Bowl. She said of Mr. Highland, Mr. Kimre, Mr. Gimry, and Swim Coach, Dan Johnson,
“I felt seen by them, I felt heard. I felt welcomed by administrators and teachers. If I saw an injustice, I worked to find a solution. They told me, ‘Go do it, Karina.’”
Karina helped the school resource officer diffuse arguments among kids at the high school. She mediated and advocated on their behalf, believing they just needed to feel they belonged, that WeGo was their home. If they were given opportunities and chances, they would choose the right path.
High expectation and leadership was the path her parents chose. They always felt their children would “do something one day”, so college was a given. Karina headed first to College of DuPage where she joined Latinos from all over the county in the Latino Ethnic Awareness Association, led by Latino faculty sponsors. She learned the power of the Census and redistricting. As LEAA President she invited the first and newly elected Latino State Senator, Miguel Del Valle, to speak to the club. His message: Our voice is our vote. His inspiration would guide her as she navigated the rigors of higher education.
The next stop on the path was National Lewis University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and human services. In 2000 she entered Aurora University where Karina credits outstanding professors for her love of social work. In 2002 she earned her Master of Social Work.
While interning at Elementary School District 33, she sent out 10 resumes to Chicago Public Schools and received 9 job offers, plus an offer from Superintendent Phil Villevade of District 33. Her classmates at AU were sending out hundreds of applications and receiving not a single offer. Clearly, fluency in the Spanish language and culture was a premium. Karina was drawn to the city, but she also loved the students and administrators at D-33. She had a decision to make, and her mom posed a pivotal question:
“You are going to make a difference wherever you go. Why not give back to your local community, the community that raised you?”
Karina accepted the position in 2002 as one of 5 social workers serving the 13 elementary schools in West Chicago District 33. She says the kids taught her perseverance, resilience and determination, and their parents taught her about love and hard work. When SASED asked her to join their leadership team serving all of DuPage County public schools, Karina had another tough decision to make. She revered Superintendent Ed Leman, and he valued all she had accomplished for the district’s children. He urged her to stay, and Karina found a way to serve both SASED and District 33. She would accept the position serving the entire county of students with disabilities, and she would run for D-33 Board of Education. As an elected school board member she voted to name the new middle school the Edward Leman Middle School.
She promoted the hiring of a full time social worker in every District 33 school, and installed a Mariachi program as a Spanish cultural elective with a full time faculty member. The Mariachi class grew into an after-school club with more than 100 students participating. Later, as State Representative she would host the Mariachi los Rayos to play at the Illinois Capitol Rotunda for Latino Unity Day. In April 2022 the band played at Latino Unity Day in Springfield and met Governor Pritzker.
When Governor Rauner took office in 2016, he led a budget stalemate that gutted programs across the state of Illinois. Social services had no funds to serve the families and schools that were counting on them. Hiring came to a standstill and school boards were asking what else could possibly be cut. Karina decided she needed to make an impact not just in the local school district and in DuPage County, but to be a legislator advocating for all the families across the counties in Illinois House District 49.
In 2020 she expanded her impact by winning a seat as Illinois State Senator for the 25th District, turning another red district blue. On November 8, 2022 the voters in District 25 re-elected Senator Karina Villa by an 18% margin. By offering internships and fellowships through her office Senator Villa is creating a path for emerging young leaders who will make their impact to improve the lives of children, workers and families in the state of Illinois.
The CHS Educational Foundation and West Chicago Community High School are honored to present the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award for Public Policy to Karina Villa, class of 1996.