A native of Chicago, Debra grew up in Dallas, Texas, and lived for a time in Baltimore and Providence, Rhode Island. After returning to Chicago in 1982, Debra became an active volunteer in local conservation initiatives, especially helping to restore the forest preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River in Cook County. This work taught her that the prairies, wetlands and oak woods are the real Discovery Zone in our region, essential for our quality of life, for cleaning our air and water, for recreation and contemplation.
After working for a time at the Better Government Association and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Debra helped to launch Chicago WILDERNESS Magazine in 1997, a quarterly publication devoted to the rare nature of the Chicago region and to the inspiring stories of people working to preserve and restore the globally-significant biological diversity found here. (Debra won a Peter Lisagor Award for Excellence in Editorial Writing for her essays in the magazine in 2003.)
Debra soon became a leader in the regional conservation consortium called Chicago Wilderness – an alliance of more than 250 public and private organizations dedicated to protecting nature and enriching life from southeastern Wisconsin to the Indiana Dunes – where she helped to attract resources to support habitat restoration, education and outreach, and engagement of a broad and diverse populace in regional conservation work.
However, Debra’s devotion to the health of local natural areas also led to her political advocacy as she discovered that many of the forest preserves had been neglected by those charged with their care. In 1996, she helped to found Friends of the Forest Preserves and also served on Cook County Board President John Stroger’s Community Advisory Council on Land Management from 1997 to 2007. She also began to volunteer on political campaigns, helping to elect more progressive members to the Cook County Board (which oversees the Forest Preserve District).
In 2003, Debra was selected as a participant in the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership, a program designed to recruit and groom Democratic women in Illinois to run for office. After working on a number of other political campaigns, Debra ran for a position on the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago in 2006. She came in first in a field of nine candidates in the Democratic primary and began her first term in December 2006. She was re–elected for a second term in 2012.
In addition to her elected position, Debra has been active in her community, serving as president of the board of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, and on the board (past chair) of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute. Debra is also a member of the Women’s Board of the University of Chicago and the board of the Great Lakes Protection Fund. She recently became president of the IWIL Board as well.
Debra lives with her partner, Kathleen Gillespie, in Skokie, and has a 31 year–old son, Ben Smith, who is an architect in Seattle. Over the years, she has climbed 42 of the 54 mountains in Colorado more than 14,000 ft. high. She wishes she could play bluegrass banjo.