In Conversation with Liz Dozier
Just saying the word Chicago has the power to evoke powerful imagery. Depending on your neighborhood, that imagery can vary radically. This is what Liz Dozier is working to change. As a principal credited with turning around one of the city’s most violent schools and now as an activist working to improve conditions in not just one Chicago neighborhood, but all neighborhoods, Liz isn’t about sitting in an office, she’s about getting proximate to the issues and the people. We’d like to thank Liz for sitting down and talking to us about her work…
What was your own educational experience like?
My mom believed in the power of education and its ability to change a person’s trajectory. She worked incredibly hard as a teacher and scrimped and saved to send my sister and myself to Catholic schools. We had a great quality education, and I believe that my mom’s sacrifices really helped shape who I am today.
How has growing up/living in Chicago influenced you?
Over the years, I lived in multiple neighborhoods from Englewood, to Hyde Park, to the Loop. I’ve noticed that different Chicagos exist just miles from one another. That disparity has influenced how I’ve come to see the world and opportunities that exist in it. The zip code one lives in can greatly influence a person’s long- and short-term life outcomes. Everything from the quality of the school one attends to how much green space you may have and if you can safely access it are impacted by where you live. Those disparities influence our work and how I think about helping to invest in creating one Chicago.
In your personal life, who do you look up to?
I look up to a number of people for various reasons. Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, and the narrative around the humanity in people that he has been championing for decades. St. Sabina’s Reverend Pfleger and his activism work to reduce violence in our city. Angelique Power, who is running the Field Foundation and single-handedly reshaping the narrative of equity here in Chicago. My mom who sacrificed so much to give my sister and I more opportunities to be able to live the life we imagined. And, of course, my former students and all the lessons they’ve taught me along the way.
What is the biggest obstacle to change in the communities you serve?
Chicago’s communities are incredibly strong and resilient. The biggest obstacle for that strength and resilience is due to disinvestment in communities, and also the mindsets of those outside of communities directing and influencing where resources should go.
What commonalities do you see in kids who succeed despite attending ‘failing’ schools or living in struggling communities?
Kids are kids. Regardless of what zip code you’re in, kids are kids. They have the same dreams, the same aspirations, the same wants, the same needs. Whether it’s psychological safety or wanting to have a family to connect into to feel whole, kids are kids. The idea that somehow kids who exist in a “failing school” or live in the communities that are “struggling” are so different from kids in a well-resourced community is the exact type of thinking that undergirds why our city and our country are so divided. It’s a false narrative. All kids, regardless of their zip code, possess boundless potential. Period.
How has your approach to leading a school and impacting the community changed over the years?
My thinking changed when I got proximate. I realized that in order to contribute in meaningful ways, I had to be proximate. That helped me understand the issues in a human way and therefore contribute to more human solutions. That’s also the basis for our work at Chicago Beyond. We work hand-in-hand with our community partners. Everything we do is rooted in relationship. We challenge ourselves to reflect on our own biases –it is the strongest thing we can do to de-condition injustice.
How does the term justice work differ from charity?
Charity is a word laden with power. It is something that people with power do for people without; a mix of good intentions and distribution of dollars, reinforcing power imbalances that created the need for “acts of charity” in the first place. It draws the line between the “haves” and “have nots” even more clearly. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., charity does a great job of helping us all to forget why it is needed in the first place. By contrast, justice is inherently about leveling the playing field. It elevates us all as humans. It pays attention to the means and to the ends. It holds us accountable and underscores what should be the true purpose of philanthropy, which is not charity, but achieving a just world.
What would you say is the most important factor to your success as a justice worker?
Being proximate to people. It allows me to understand the work in a more holistic way.
What are the most important ways people can make a positive impact in their own communities?
It’s not about just your own community. How are you thinking about other people and other people’s communities? How are you getting proximate? For example, you can check out My Block, My Hood, My City, an organization in Chicago trying to bridge divides across our city and create real, human relationships across neighborhood borders. Their mission is to give young people new experiences, exposing them to possibilities beyond their own communities – but they’ve also evolved to do the same thing for people of all ages. You can also volunteer your professional services – such as legal, consulting, and communications – to help Chicago Beyond partners by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s about getting proximate – that’s how we can all make a positive impact not only on our own communities, but those on all sides of our city.
Are there times you are discouraged? How do you push through?
Yes, there are times I feel discouraged. I’m human. That may mean stepping back from the work and spending time outside. It might be talking to one of my former students. It might be some solid time for some reflection. The most important thing is not to push through, but to assess what’s making me not feel charged up.
How do you identify organizations to partner with?
Since we launched in 2016, Chicago Beyond has invested more than $30 million in 14 local nonprofit organizations and a community leader that fight for all youth to achieve their fullest human potential.
Beyond providing transformative funding, we strive to understand when we can best be of service to grow an existing organization, design something innovative, develop a new learning, or communicate a larger narrative.
We take a holistic approach to investing because there is no single barrier to equity, we invest in everything from education, to youth safety, to community development, to health, wellness, and beyond. We also see a way to leverage our learnings to reconceptualize philanthropy and push the field to take a more equitable and justice-driven approach to investing in communities. Chicago Beyond has various approaches to identifying new partners from community input to open calls for ideas from organizations backing the fight for youth equity. You can always find our latest news and opportunities at ChicagoBeyond.org.
How do you unwind?
Yoga and spending time with friends.
What are some of your favorite places to spend time in Chicago?
I really enjoy being on the lake.
What makes you proud to work in Chicago?
Chicagoans have a lot of heart and a lot of spirit and I can’t imagine doing this work in any other city in the country.