Aspart of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Dozier.
Liz Dozier is Founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, a social impact investor backing the fight for youth and racial equity. From education to activism, Liz Dozier has spent her career working tirelessly to disrupt the culture of inequity that is often pervasive in urban neighborhoods. During her tenure as principal at Fenger Academy High School, Liz and her team turned the school from one of the most violent and underperforming schools in Chicago to a leader in restorative justice practices, academic interventions and social emotional learning.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Liz Dozier: I grew up between the suburbs and city of Chicago in a predominantly white neighborhood. My family was the only Black family that lived in our neighborhood of Crestwood, Illinois. My mom is white and a former nun who actually met my dad while she was ministering to men in prison. A significant part of how my parents came together, in addition to the neighborhood I grew up in, influenced a lot of what I think and do today personally and professionally.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Liz: In the 5th or 6th grade I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I devoured it. I was able to view several aspects of my own experience through the lens of the main character who was also a little Black girl growing up in White dominant culture. In the novel, she had several home issues and through the influence of Dick and Jane characters believed that somehow her life would be better if she was White with blue eyes. Growing up in a predominantly White neighborhood at a time when many media images were White centered, this sentiment resonated with me. As a young adult I came to understand how racism and exclusively dominant culture narratives and images can destroy one’s self-confidence and self-worth. Through that experience, I also came to understand the power of new and inclusive narratives.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Liz: In the Bible, the book of Genesis Chapter 37 tells the story of Joseph who is someone that went through many trials and tribulations — slavery, imprisonment — and goes on to become very powerful and revered. Prior to this, Joseph had a dream that one day his brothers would be his servants. When he shares the dream with his brothers they respond with the quote, “Come now, let’s kill him. Let’s kill this dreamer.”
Joseph, who came from nothing, went on to save Israel from a seven-year famine despite his doubters and detractors. This struck a chord with me because I too have dealt with people who judged my dreams and tried to convince me that those ambitions were too big or audacious. His story is a powerful lesson to hold steadfastly onto your dreams and not be deterred by the limited imaginations or expectations of others.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Liz: Leadership is about being courageous enough to make tough calls for the benefit of the people you are serving. When I was principal at Fenger High School, we had many challenges. At the time it was known as one of the most violent and underperforming schools in Chicago, with a 19 percent dropout rate. During my tenure the dropout rate decreased to two percent, along with double digit increases in the school’s attendance and graduation rates.
These wins didn’t come easily. They resulted from a series of tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. Through those experiences I learned that leadership isn’t a popularity contest or a race to be the most liked or the most admired. True leadership is about making difficult choices that are firmly rooted in your values and reflect your commitment to the greater good.
In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
Liz: For me that person is my Dad, who is the reason why I’ve chosen the career path that I’m on. He grew up touching all of the systems that we at Chicago Beyond are fighting to disrupt: education, foster care, criminal justice. These systems that were supposed to provide a quality education, healthy home, rehabilitation — they all failed. To this day my Dad cannot read. Because all of those systems failed — systems that are undergirded by structural racism — he never got to truly live his full life. Yet at 70 years, even with the barriers he’s encountered, my Dad is one of the smartest and most caring people I know, and the one who inspires me most.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Liz: Systemic racism is the cancer of our country. Racism is insidious in nature and, like a cancer, it spreads and kills individuals’ potential as well as our collective possibility as a country. Racism doesn’t allow us to be who we set out to be in our Declaration of Independence. This is an issue that resonates deeply because of my own experiences dealing with and talking about racism growing up, during my time working in the Chicago school system, and now with the work we’re leading at Chicago Beyond.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Liz: The crisis of systemic racism has evolved to this point because we’ve never fully addressed and reckoned with our history as a country. Black people were brought to the U.S. essentially as physical assets and were enslaved for hundreds of years. Even when slavery “legally” ended other measures were intentionally put into place that did not allow for true freedom and the pursuit of the American Dream. From Jim Crow to mass incarceration, we have denied the realization of that dream to our fellow citizens. The remnants of these deliberate measures still remain and still impact the masses. Until we as a country truly acknowledge and address our history through truth and reconciliation, we are never going to heal. This is why we are at the current boiling point.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
Liz: At Chicago Beyond we’ve been leading conversations to help people unpack what White privilege is and how to become anti-racist. Some people may ask, “Well what can I do? I’m just one person at one company,” or, “I’m just one person in my neighborhood,” or, “I don’t even deeply know any people who are Black.” Through these conversations, we’re providing people with actionable steps towards dismantling systemic racism.
Recently in the LA Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described racism as being like dust in the air. He said that like dust, racism seems invisible until you realize you’re choking on it and it’s not until you let the sun in that you realize there’s dust everywhere. In order for us to get rid of racism, we have to shine light on it. These conversations are an attempt to keep shining the light and to challenge us to do better.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1) Educate yourself and then use what you’ve learned to help educate others. Through our anti-racism series, we’ve been hosting critical conversations with anti-racist leaders, as well as creating toolkits that people can use to begin incorporating these practices into their work, their organizations and everyday lives.
2) Recognize the power of voting and why it truly matters. Paying attention to elections at the local and state level are equally, if not even more, important than federal elections. The people we vote into our local and state offices determine what resources either go into or are kept out of certain communities. Additionally, we must be informed on the ways in which systemic racism is embedded in our legal institutions, which impacts our voting systems and the rights of Black people and people of color to fully participate in our democracy.
3) We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable and remove ourselves from the neutral ground of silence and inaction. The iconic writer and author James Baldwin once said, “We live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal… for if they take you in the morning they will be coming for us that night.” In other words, to be silent is to be complicit. If we fail to speak out and take meaningful action to stanch systemic racism, America’s future and our ability to truly heal and recover as a nation will never be fully realized.
4) The voices and stories of people and communities directly impacted by explicit and systemic racism must be centered. The people in society with power and privilege must speak out for those who have neither. We must use our platforms to amplify and highlight their lived experiences.
5) We must recognize how implicit, unrecognized biases show up in our funding institutions, and in our research and analysis. Those of us who are working in philanthropy, grantmaking, social impact investing and venture capital are uniquely positioned to facilitate change. Chicago Beyond has done extensive research and produced guidebooks on this very topic to help cross-sector leaders be more racially equitable and inclusive in their own policies and practices.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Liz: Yes, I think we as a nation are capable of coming together to tackle systemic racism head on and begin dismantling institutions and policies that have excluded so many Black people and people of color from reaching their fullest potential. This is especially so for our youth, which is what also makes me optimistic. Our young people today, the Z Generation, have been awakened and are mobilizing for change every day — in their own homes, neighborhoods and cities. The path forward has always been shaped by our young people and they continue to give me great hope that a brighter future lies still ahead.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Liz: I want our young people to know that racism in all of its forms, while complex, is not insurmountable. If we value our freedom and the freedom of other human beings, we all must be in this fight. Our young people have such an important role to play in changing the trajectory of how we talk about and address issues of race in this country. I also want our youth to know that we will all have different roles to play and there isn’t just one right way to take action. Some of us will be out there protesting or writing legislation; others may be the storytellers and helping amplify voices through various forms of media. We each have a responsibility to make America live up to the ideals that it promised to all of us.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Liz: Michelle Obama is my first reaction because she’s magical in every sense. However, I really respect the work of the wonderful author and academic Ibram X. Kendi, who has written extensively about racism, particularly his book How to be an Anti-Racist. He’s been very influential to me and the work we do at Chicago Beyond.
How can our readers follow you online?
Liz: We invite everyone to visit ChicagoBeyond.org to learn all about our work backing the fight for youth and racial equity. You can also find us on Twitter at @chicago_beyond and on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram at @chicagobeyond.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!