By Jean A. Williams
Chicago is batting a thousand in the last half decade when it comes to young community organizers making big strides in the public eye.
First, there was a bold, charismatic lad known affectionately as “Barry” who blossomed into a political force that ultimately led him to the White House at age 47.
Now comes an astute, conscientious lass named Ashley Hooks, who is on her way to the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas in June, having been crowned Miss Illinois USA in November.
Hooks, 25, is the daughter of Judge William H. Hooks and Dr. Debra S. Hooks of south suburban Homewood-Flossmoor.
“We’re all excited about the prospect of her being Miss USA,” said Judge Hooks, who rules on the Cook County Circuit Court. “But we’re also excited about her just being a wonderful young lady.”
Hooks — a statuesque beauty who appears to have plenty of brains and heart to match — works full-time as a Special Legal Projects Manager for the State of Illinois’ Department of Central Management Services.
She attended Homewood-Flossmoor High School and later studied urban planning at the University of Illinois. Even as a college student, Hooks distinguished herself through her pursuit of urban planning as a profession.
“I went into it because I was interested in playing a role in how communities were developed,” Hooks said. “I was a believer that when we develop in communities, we should sustain certain parts of them so that gentrification doesn’t mean that we have to displace people who currently live there.”
While at the University of Illinois, Hooks was a student leader in a project to restore historic parks in beleaguered East St. Louis, Illinois. Hooks says that the experience working in East St. Louis was key in her evolution into a community organizer.
“I had volunteered before, but this was my first adult experience working in the community and interacting with individuals who really wanted to see change and then actually implementing that change,” she said.
After her success working on the East St. Louis parks project, Hooks sought more community organizing experience.
“I was interested in doing more for the community and getting training on it, so I enrolled in the Midwest Academy Internship Program in Chicago. They selected me as one of their summer interns, and I was trained as a community organizer in Chicago, the summer before my senior year,” Hooks said. “I took some of those community organizing skills that I learned back to U of I to finish up that plan.”
East St. Louis park district officials ultimately implemented aspects of the plan Hooks helped write.
After graduating from college in 2008, Hooks moved to Albany, New York, where she has an older sister, Mariah. There, Hooks worked as a community organizer with Citizen Action of New York and as a campaign manager for a district attorney candidate.
Eventually, she got a call that would spin her in a new direction when her father asked her to return to Chicago to manage his campaign for Cook County Circuit Court Judge. He had been appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court in August 2008 to fill a judicial vacancy and later launched a campaign to be elected for the seat.
“She did a wonderful job,” Judge Hooks said. “She connected all my different areas where I have friends and colleagues. She pulled it off, and she did it in short order. She came back and literally within a few months, she and Debbie, my wife, were able to do this.”
Hooks led her father to a win with about 50 percent of the vote, with his two rival candidates roughly splitting the other 50 percent, Judge Hooks said. “It was as a result of Ashley’s enthusiasm and her energy. She was putting in 14 hour days,” he said.
Family influence, of course, came into play before Hooks even set her sights on urban planning and community organizing while in college.
“I would be remiss to say that my family hasn’t influenced me,” Hooks said. “I grew up with a sense of awareness that was unique. I always felt that we should be working toward something greater. That was just something that’s always been ingrained in me.”
Hooks’ mother adds, “We’re always talking about aspects of social justice in our house, and have from a very early age, almost to the point of ad nauseam, the girls thought, really early on. But then as they got older and had their own experiences, they could relate to those things.”
Hooks says her family influences also include her renowned cousin Dr. Benjamin Hooks, late civil rights activist and former NAACP executive director, who died in 2010.
“He’d been a very strong role model in my Dad’s life, but mine as well,” Hooks said. “He lived in Memphis, and we would often go down to Memphis and see that side of the family. Even though we didn’t see each other often, he was still somebody that we often talked about.”
About a month before she competed for and won Miss Illinois, Hooks learned some unsettling news. Her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which would ironically become a crusading topic of her Miss Illinois responsibilities.
“I’m not going to lie,” Hooks said. “It was a tough time. At first there were doubts in my mind about whether I should compete.”
“But, for one, the win lifted the mood, I’d say, for our family. My mom was very excited, and I was happy that she was able to witness my win. I think that it just brought a little bit of joy into our family where we were feeling down because of her diagnosis.
“It is rather ironic. But as Miss Illinois, I’ve been able to use this platform to raise awareness of ovarian cancer. I think it’s really important that people who have a platform to talk about things, do talk about things that are substantive.”
Not only is Hooks leading a crusade on the issue publicly, she is also the No. 1 advocate for her mother personally.
“The strength and support of my family has pulled me through,” Mrs. Hooks said. “My mother, who has more vitality than I do right now. My husband, who has been so devoted to me. My daughter in New York, who has come almost every month or two to be with me. And Ashley has been with me every step of the way.”
Mrs. Hooks said that her daughter has taken a leading role in the fight against her ovarian cancer.
“Ashley sits with me for every treatment,” she said. “She does not miss a treatment. I had to go down for a CT scan yesterday. She drove me there. Ashley has been there. She has been the one who has been advocating with the doctors and with the hospital from day one. They will all tell you at the hospital.
“My husband took a back seat. My older daughter took a back seat and said, ‘This is a way Ashley is going to cope with this. Let her take the lead.’ The doctors will not talk to me. They talk to her. She has taken charge. The roles have reversed.”
One way Hooks is helping to educate women to fight back against breast and ovarian cancer is through working with organizations like Bright Pink, a nonprofit founded in Chicago by Lindsay Avner.
“She’s going through a very difficult time,” Avner said. “It’s very hard to have a family member fighting this disease, and yet she is always finding and looking for the bright side and the blessing. To be able to use this experience to make a difference in the lives of others, to give up her heart, to give up time, to give up her platform so generously to support an organization like Bright Pink is truly incredible.”
Avner can relate. She lost her great-grandmother and her grandmother one week apart to breast cancer. Her own mother is a breast and ovarian cancer survivor, and she, herself, has a genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancers.
“We hit it off immediately,” Avner said. “And I know that Ashley’s involvement in Bright Pink is not going to be a flash of the moment kind of thing. I think this is going to be a lifelong crusade of hers and we’re really blessed to be one of her partners.”
Working with Hooks, Avner and Bright Pink are considering creating programs that target young Black women for prevention and early detection strategies against breast and ovarian cancers. Hooks will make an appearance at Bright Pink’s next event called “Fab Fest” on April 15 at the Four Seasons Hotel. (www.fabfest2012.com)
Brains Before Beauty
One can’t help but notice Hooks’ girl next door, All-American good looks — a hallmark of pageantry. But she’s adamant that that’s just one aspect of her, that there is much more to the opportunity than flaunting your physical goods.
In fact, Hooks was so convinced of the power of the Miss Illinois and Miss USA platforms to reach young women with positive messages that she competed twice. She vied for Miss Illinois 2011 and finished as the 2nd runner-up.
“As a kid, I wasn’t just focused on how I looked on the outside,” Hooks said. “My parents never taught me to just focus on that. They taught me that beauty wasn’t always lasting and that, really, I had to focus on school and being a good person and making the right decisions.”
Her mother concurs. “You would think that some people would really be full of themselves with all of this, but that’s not who she is,” Mrs. Hooks said.
“With the hair and the makeup, yes, she has to do it sometimes. But she has to remind herself, ‘Oh, that’s right. I’m Miss Illinois. So I have to present in a certain way and I have to look a certain way, so I better put this makeup on when I go out.’ But that really isn’t who she is.”
Hooks’ parents were initially skeptical of her plans to compete in the Miss Illinois pageant. But after a closer look, they came to see it as a worthy platform for their daughter to give voice to some of her social justice and community organizing passions.
“The pageant piece is not something we’d typically get involved in, but she has taken this to another level in the sense that she has used this as a platform to connect with other young people on all levels –– grade school, high school, college and also those who have graduated –– to discuss issues of education, inclusion and community service,” Judge Hooks said. “These are all family traditions.”