Off the Hook with Ashley

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Her multifaceted life includes advocacy, volunteerism and, yes, even a beauty pageant.

Interviewing Miss Illinois USA 2012, Ashley Hooks, provided an insightful look into life outside the pageant – professionally and personally. From receiving a bachelor of arts in urban planning from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to volunteering for Bright Pink and mentoring Chicago Public School students, Ms. Hooks is a young woman beyond beautiful.

Born in the Midwest and raised by two supportive parents, Ms. Hooks is unequivocally well grounded. William and Debra Hooks raised their children to be resourceful, charitable and responsible. Debra Hooks is executive director of E.C.H.O. (Exceptional Children Have Opportunities), a special education co-operative in Chicago’s south suburbs, while Honorable William H. Hooks, judge to the felony Criminal Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps in various positions in the Signals Intelligence/Electronic Warfare and Marine Judge Advocate fields.

Both parents have inspired Ms. Hooks and her sister, Mariah, to set high goals and achieve them. “My parents have given me big shoes to fill in every aspect of my life,” she says. “My mom is sensitive and caring, but strong. She’s been a mentor teaching me to work hard and be kind to others. My dad is a work horse who taught me to be persistent and exhibit endurance for the long haul.”

Currently Ms. Hooks works as a legislative liaison and a special projects manager for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS). On working in the male-dominated field of politics in Illinois, Ms. Hooks shares, “What makes it possible is my innate desire to overcome stereotypes and this administrations’ utilization of a diverse workforce. Governor Pat Quinn frequently quotes Harold Washington, saying, ‘Everyone in, nobody left out,’ and this notion has given me a unique opportunity to work on policy issues at the state level.”

What exactly does Ms. Hooks’ job entail? She describes her position: “During this year’s legislative session, I was in Springfield working on various policy initiatives that promote diversity inclusion in state purchasing and employment. I work to assist the members of the general assembly and the business community at-large to understand how our procurement process works and remedy any issues that may arise.”

Growing up on the South Side and experiencing inequality on different levels, Ms. Hooks knew which career path she’d take. She explains, “Early on I had a desire to equalize the playing field as it related to communities and resources. My maternal grandfather was a Realtor and he often mentioned gentrification, redlining and the discriminatory practices of community development. Subsequently, I witnessed Chicago and my own south suburban neighborhood change economically and demographically. Understanding that Chicago was one of the most diverse cities, but also one of the most segregated cities in the nation, I wanted to study how we could manage and support diversity without displacing certain communities. So I decided to get my degree in urban planning with a focus on community development.”

Appearing on TCW’s cover means everything to Ms. Hooks. She shares, “Being a part of the TCW Diversity Inclusion issue is a huge honor and one that I don’t take for granted. When I’m given a platform as Miss Illinois USA 2012 or otherwise, I feel responsible to express positive messages because I am representing, not only myself and my family, but also women of my generation who I believe are so often misunderstood and misrepresented. While I’ve been blessed to have strong, educated and beautiful women in my life as family, peers and mentors, there are many young people that don’t have those positive influences; thus they rely on the media for inspiration. Chicago is lucky to have TCW as a media publication that truly empowers women by focusing on their intellect – a model quality that I believe desperately needs to be replicated in other arenas.”

Prior to obtaining her current position at the CMS, Ms. Hooks vied for the prestigious title of Miss Illinois USA on a whim. The crown proved to be a platform that opened several doors, including speaking on behalf of breast and ovarian cancer awareness. Speaking of the pageant, where does one store their Miss Illinois USA crown? Ms. Hooks, who plans to marry Kyle Williams, a banker in the private wealth management department at J.P.Morgan Chase N.A., this fall at Holy Name Cathedral, says the crown is in storage at her fiancée’s house. On the value of the crown, Ms. Hooks reveals, “the crown has more emotional value to me than financial value. It carries all of the memories of the year of competition– an incredible experience. It has changed my life in several positive ways. It all happened so suddenly, and with it came responsibilities that I took on, and I haven’t looked back.”

Following the upcoming nuptials, what does Ms. Hooks’ future hold? She plans to attend acting classes in Chicago this summer, give modeling a try and return to college in 2014 to study for a master’s degree in public policy and administration. She also wants to return to broadcasting on the radio and even appear in television commercials.

In her closing words, Ms. Hooks says it all: ”As the world continues to become more globally diverse and complex, it’s imperative for people, especially women, to continue to create dialogue around woman empowerment – sharing our unique paths in overcoming challenges and achieving victories will demonstrate to others that we all have more in common than our differences.”

Skrebneski Photograph

Cindy_Burns

About Cindy Burns

Cindy Burns is an author, researcher and freelance writer. She has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and The Women's Auxillary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She’s also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital and writes as TCW's "Woman About Town," covering Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, interviews with women who are making a difference, and more around Chicago