Research Leads to Leadership Conference Invitation for Guzman '16
Feb. 26, 2016
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— At first, Melissa Guzman ’16 thought the email had been sent to
her by mistake.
Guzman’s inbox contained a message from Sylvia Torres, a Chicago-based alderman. It
read: “Will you go to this event with me?” Torres was referring to the annual United
States Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference. Guzman had never heard of the event,
and Guzman and Torres had never met, though they’d spoken by phone.
An Illinois Wesleyan University political science major, Guzman had interviewed Torres for a senior seminar project examining the underrepresentation
of Latina elected officials in Illinois and identifying obstacles that are specific
to Latinas. Representing the City of Chicago Heights’ 7th Ward, Torres was among the 15 women Guzman interviewed by phone last fall.
Expanding her project for honors research, Guzman is now surveying Latino men and
non-Latina women who hold public office in Illinois. Guzman will also ask additional
questions of her original subjects, which is why she’d emailed Torres earlier this
month and received the unexpected invitation to attend what Guzman learned was the
premier Hispanic leadership conference as Torres’ guest.
At the conference, Torres and Guzman networked with national policymakers and attended
a forum hosted by broadcast journalist and former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien. Guzman
said that an underlying theme of her conversations with participants throughout the
day focused on helping Latinos get elected to public office and to increase civic
participation at all levels among Latinos.
Guzman is keenly interested in these topics and has spent a considerable portion of
her college experience investigating them. Two years ago she interned with the Bruce
Rauner gubernatorial campaign after he tapped Wheaton City Councilwoman Evelyn Sanguinetti
as his running mate. At the end of the summer of 2014, Guzman was offered a staff
position as special assistant to Sanguinetti. Although it meant Guzman would have
to miss the fall semester of her junior year, Guzman said the opportunity was something
she couldn’t pass up.
“I had an insider’s look into campaigning and witnessed what it’s like for a candidate
in the heat of a campaign,” recalled Guzman, a native of Chicago. Crisscrossing the
state, Guzman worked with Sanguinetti nearly every day as the candidate attended interviews,
fundraisers, parades, meetings, ceremonies and other public events. Sanguinetti’s
election in November 2014 made her the first female Hispanic lieutenant governor in
the United States. “Working on the campaign only increased my passion that the country
needs more Latinas in office,” said Guzman.
She broadened her perspective on women in office during an internship at Running Start,
a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to train young women to run for political
office, while she was enrolled in the Washington semester program at American University.
The internship led to introductions at Spanish language network Univision, where Guzman
interned during the summer of 2015.
At Univision’s Washington office, Guzman worked with a government advocacy group and
attended the Young Elected Officials National Convening. Representing Univision at
several events that summer, Guzman was struck by some recurring themes: the percentage
of Latinos who don’t vote, the potential influence of the Latino voting bloc, and
the fact that many of the young elected officials of color were the first in their
districts, wards or counties.
All of these experiences led Guzman to refine her interests into the senior research
project. Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Political Science Kathleen Montgomery,
Guzman’s project included research into overlapping and intersecting social characterizations
particular to Hispanic women. “Latinas are part of a disenfranchised minority and
also a gender that isn’t well represented in government,” said Guzman. “I wanted to
see what kind of obstacles women who are Latino face when seeking office.”
This spring Guzman, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, will graduate from IWU, the
first in her family to earn a college degree. She hopes to work with a nonprofit or
advocacy group to encourage more women and Latinos to run for public office. She prefers
working behind the scenes of campaigns — conducting research, advising and networking
— but feels somewhat hypocritical encouraging others to run for office when she’s
not doing it herself. So she’s not entirely ruling it out.
No matter in what capacity, Guzman is sure she will continue her advocacy for representation.
“Hispanics are the largest minority group,” she points out. In Hispanic share of state
populations, Illinois ranks 10th, according to the Pew Research Center. “I just believe
more attention should be paid to representation of this group of people.”