Rachel Ruttenberg grew up in the Chicagoland area and has always had a passion for policy advocacy. Her career has spanned from working in school systems to small non-profits and now, she has joined Heartland Alliance’s Research & Policy Division as the new Director of Policy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself— Where are you from? What roles were you in before joining Heartland Alliance?
I grew up in the Chicagoland area and I currently live in Evanston with my husband, our two little girls, and our dog. I started my career working for Chicago Public Schools doing communications. During my time there, education reform started making headlines, and folks started investing in strategies to address neighborhood and racial inequities. I call it my “coming of age” job because it gave me so much personally and professionally: it is where I met my husband and my dearest friends, and it is where I learned about the possibilities (and challenges) of achieving system reform. Most recently, I was the Executive Director of a small legal aid non-profit called the Family Defense Center, which advocated for families involved in the child welfare system.
What brought you to policy/legal work?
During my time at CPS, I attended law school night. I wanted to dig in and understand the root causes as to why there was this achievement gap, why some schools got more funding than others, and the other seemingly insurmountable inequities that held our schools back from helping all kids reach their potential.
When I went to law school and started hanging out with lawyers and policy folks, I felt like I found my people! They weren’t afraid to get in the weeds, roll up their sleeves, and do whatever it took to fix a problem. That’s why this new role has been a dream job for me: Heartland Alliance is filled with people who are excited to get to work and who are passionate about changing systems to make the greatest impact.
What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?
It’s all so exciting. I’m jumping from amazing topic to amazing topic, just trying to get up to speed. I just went to event focusing on closing the racial wealth gap and I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about that topic. Planning for our upcoming criminal justice reform work has also been incredibly exciting. Heartland Alliance has the capacity and the momentum to get real change done – changes that will positively impact every person in Illinois. And I am learning and hopefully pitching in every day to help us move the needle on so many important issues.
How would you describe you first months at Heartland Alliance?
I am drinking from the firehouse that is Heartland Alliance and taking in as much as I can! Since I spent my more recent years in much smaller organizations, it’s so been interesting, in an amazing and challenging way, to join a larger institution and understand all of its quirks, challenges, and possibilities.
What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t at work?
Politics! It is petition season and everyone is out there trying to get on the 2020 ballot. I love working to help my friends and community leaders get on the ballot and win elections. I also just love walking around Evanston with my kids. They love going to the library, playing in the fountain (when it’s a little warmer out), and stopping by our favorite coffeeshop for pink cookies.
Who inspires you?
My mom always inspires me. She’s a social worker who has spent decades helping children and families thrive. Being a strong advocate for others is truly in my genes; I don’t know any other way.