A Publication of WTVP

Women of Influence

A longtime Peoria resident, Dr. Rita Ali has made an indelible mark on her community in a range of leadership roles. As vice president of workforce, diversity and career development at Illinois Central College, she helps prepare the next generation for careers in the 21st-century economy. As an at-large member of the Peoria City Council, she works to expand opportunities for living wage jobs, affordable housing, quality healthcare and safe neighborhoods. She is a bridge builder and collaborator, striving to better connect the community to more effectively meet human needs, and a lifelong learner, having earned her master’s degree, MBA and PhD.

Tell us about growing up in Peoria, your family and childhood. What were your hobbies and interests? Who or what were early influences on you?
I have very fond memories of growing up in Peoria after moving here from Hannibal, Missouri at age six. My mother was my first teacher, opting not to send me to kindergarten. By the time I entered first grade at Lee School, I already knew how to read, thanks to Mom’s teaching.

I am the middle of three children, the “three R’s”: Robin, Rita and Robert. We grew up on Peoria’s south side during a time when neighbors really looked out for one another. Everyone knew everyone on their block and all blocks surrounding their block. We were not only protected, but if we did something wrong, our parents knew before we got home. My parents had many hobbies—we went fishing, camping and bowling, watched sports games, and went to motorcycle races. Some of my best memories include organizing a neighborhood carnival in our basement, creating a garden in our backyard, and helping my father transform an old bread truck into a family camper. My parents and elementary teachers were definitely the greatest influences on me early on.

Tell us more about your education and career path. What drove you to attain multiple degrees?
I am convinced that education remains the great equalizer. My life is an example of that. The more education I’ve attained, the greater career opportunities I’ve had. My income has increased with every increase in education. That is especially true in my field of work, but I’ve seen it in other industries as well. It took me eight years to earn my bachelor’s degree. During that time, I was a single parent trying to work, attend college and raise my daughter—all at the same time. It was a struggle and it took a long time, but I eventually got there.

Then I just kept going. I went on to get a master’s in education administration from Bradley, finishing the degree in only 11 months. I slept with books! Later, I decided to get a doctorate degree, mainly to inspire my children and grandchildren. I got hooked on learning. I earned a second master’s degree—an MBA—and I continue to take classes at ICC on occasion just to learn and understand more. I guess you can say I’m a lifelong learner.

Dr. Rita AliWhat were some of the challenges you faced during your last run for Peoria City Council, and what lessons did you learn?
Of course I was very happy to finally win a seat on the Peoria City Council. After my prior one-vote loss for the District 5 seat, I was determined to run again for the at-large seat, but it is a daunting experience and I had to call upon every strength in my body, mind and soul. It is challenging to face opposition, public scrutiny and constant interviews, but I learned to do my homework and be prepared, stay connected with voters and expand my circle of influence. Multicultural skills and experiences have great value in today’s world and served to my advantage in the election. I learned the importance of connecting with everyone.

What are your top priorities as a Council member?
I want to improve the condition of people’s lives in Peoria. This means expanding opportunities for living wage jobs, entrepreneurism, decent and affordable housing, quality healthcare and safe neighborhoods. I believe all of this can be accomplished in partnership with key stakeholder organizations and businesses. I strive to better connect our community to more effectively meet human needs. 

One of our biggest challenges is the loss of population in Peoria. There are several factors that have led to this exodus. We must develop a trained workforce to attract employers to the area. Reducing unemployment, underemployment and poverty will also have a direct impact on crime. Creating expanded opportunities—including education and training—is a priority for me, both in my job with ICC and with the City of Peoria. People want to live in a community that has lots of access and opportunity. This will help us retain and attract population.

What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
There have been several pivotal points in my career. However, two stand out most: joining the leadership team at Advanced Information Services (AIS), an employee-owned high-tech company focused on high-quality software development, and later joining the leadership team at Illinois Central College. At AIS, I learned a great deal about creating a quality product and delivering a quality service. At ICC, I’m able to deliver on quality to change people’s lives forever.

Describe your community involvement over the years. What causes are near and dear to you?
My community service has been vast over the many years that I’ve lived in Peoria. I became involved as a teenager, becoming the first youth to serve on the board of the local Community Action Agency and the Peoria Police-Community Advisory Commission. When Sen. David Koehler first moved to Peoria, he was hired as the director of the Northside Action Council. He hired me as a community organizer. I learned so much from him about community empowerment and grass-roots organizing. It has served me well throughout my life. I also studied the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. early in life. I had the opportunity to visit the MLK Center for Social Change in Atlanta where I met Mrs. Coretta Scott King. These experiences were very impactful. I’ve served on many local boards and continue to serve as president of the Martin Luther King Holiday Committee of Peoria. 

Those causes most near and dear to me are education and training, social justice, and neighborhood revitalization. I can never forget that I was once a young single mother on welfare. My rise has resulted from increased education, incredible employment opportunities, mentors who invested in me and God’s amazing grace. I am obligated to give back.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
My one goal in life is to have raised my children and grandchildren to have good character and to demonstrate their love for God, family and community. This will be my greatest contribution to the world.

What inspires you?
I am inspired by human acts of kindness that make a difference in people’s lives; individuals that overcome adversity; people like Simone Biles who do extraordinary things; and the little miracles that happen each and every day.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?
I agree with Gallup StrengthsFinder and would use these three words to describe myself: Achiever, Believer, Responsible.

As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
I wanted to become a teacher. I had a little classroom with desks and a chalkboard set up in our basement where I would play school with the neighborhood kids. I was meant to become an educator.

What book do you think every woman should read?
I think every woman should read The Female Advantage by Sally Helgesen. I read the book in graduate school and it helped me to understand that women can excel in the workforce by using their natural gifts and talents to their advantage. Leadership can be attained by honoring and believing in your own values and skills. Helgesen has written other great books, including How Women Rise. We need more women in leadership positions. These books will help current and aspiring female leaders.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did they help you along the way?
I’ve had many mentors throughout my life, each one helping in different ways. My doctoral dissertation was titled The Relationship between Mentoring African American Professionals and Their Perceptions of Career Success. Among my discoveries was that those who had been helped and supported by a mentor maintained a deep-seated commitment to give back to others.

My mentors provided coaching, exposure and visibility, counseling, role modeling and confirmation. They exhibited traits of competence, wisdom, integrity, approachability, authenticity and caring.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was from my mentor Kathryn Timmes. She had read an article about me in The Peoria Woman magazine a number of years ago. She sent me a copy of the article with a note that read: “Rita, I was your role model. Now, you are mine.” Of course, Mrs. Timmes was the ultimate role model and mentor. 

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
My mentor Erma Davis told me she’d give me guidance and advice, but she wouldn’t do things for me because I had to grow by doing things on my own. My mentor Delores Helm told me to always listen to that inner voice; do not underestimate or ignore your spiritual side. My mentor Pat Ferguson told me to always double-check my work as it is a reflection on me. And my mentor Girish Seshagiri told me that—though it may appear that I work for others—in reality I work for myself. “Always work for yourself,” he said.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
I would encourage them to align their careers with their passions and talents, and then give your very best to your craft. Do more than enough to get by and be sure to invest in yourself. If you don’t own your own business, work as if you do.

In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
I think the greatest struggle working women face today is to challenge tradition and the status quo. Women must get more comfortable using their voices in the workplace, pursuing advancement and challenging historical inequities in the workplace. We must know our value and perform our jobs with confidence.

What social issue fires you up?
I am fired up by issues of fairness and equity, protecting children, and addressing poverty and self-sufficiency. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to Africa and China. There, I saw extreme poverty and extreme wealth. While I haven’t seen the same degrees of extremeness in America, I see the gap growing much wider between the haves and the have-nots. I’ve witnessed more people on the street asking for a handout. We have to be proactive in addressing issues of poverty and homelessness. There are some great efforts in place, yet there’s room for so much more.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I want a legacy of helping people to fulfill their dreams. I can’t do it for them, but I can help people get on track toward reaching their full potential and aligning their natural talents and passions to make a difference for themselves and others.

What book do you think every woman should read?
I think every woman should read The Female Advantage by Sally Helgesen. I read the book in graduate school and it helped me to understand that women can excel in the workforce by using their natural gifts and talents to their advantage. Leadership can be attained by honoring and believing in your own values and skills. Helgesen has written other great books, including How Women Rise. We need more women in leadership positions. These books will help current and aspiring female leaders. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I count myself as very blessed to have been raised and supported by my parents, Robert and Nora Bryant. They taught me so much about principled living and putting God and family first. I’m very grateful for this. PM