As an organization that envisions positive change, thanks to supporters like you, we can’t wait for this year’s Changemakers on Tuesday, October 26, from 11:30 am – 1 pm CST at Embassy Suites La Vista.
Changemakers is Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s celebration of people in Nebraska and across the country who create positive change in children’s lives. When you attend this event, you’ll also receive the latest updates about the work that people in our state and across the country are doing for children’s well-being!
We’re excited to host educator, activist, and CEO of Chicago Beyond, Liz Dozier, as this year’s keynote speaker. A changemaker herself and a former high school principal, as you’ll see from our short conversation, Liz is an inspirational figure. She has affected young people’s mental health, well-being, and education for the better. When you attend the celebration to hear her speak, she’ll likely change you for the better as well.
Today, we spoke with Liz to hear more about her experiences embodying and creating the change she wants to see in our future generation.
We’re excited to host you as our keynote for our Changemakers celebration. We’d love to know who is your personal Changemaker, someone who creates positive changes in the lives of children and youth, and why?
There are so many people; dozens of people who have helped usher me and so many of us on the trajectory of our journey.
The immediate thought, however, went to my students. The young people I have had the chance to work with over the years have been the true changemakers in my life. I understand our kids and communities in our challenges and true joys. There have been thousands of young people over the years who have created this change. Young people influence everything in how I think and understand the world, and the decisions I make in my current role, including how we work with communities – all these decisions are influenced by students.
In our organization, we strive for children, families, and youth to thrive. What do you envision as positive outcomes for the children with whom you work?
The most positive outcome I can think of that I have been fighting for my whole life is freedom; freedom for young people is the positive outcome!
Young people who have the odds against them, including children of color and those in poverty, should be free to access everything the world has to offer. They should have access to high-quality education and access to their emotions coming from their parental figures and homes. Freedom is about investing in education and wellness, and a healthy ecosystem for young people to thrive. That is the ultimate North Star.
What do you envision will be the most challenging part of communities’ efforts to create positive change?
The answer is two-fold. The most challenging part is us. People talk about systems, but people are complicit in these systems. We and our biases and belief systems, either intentionally or unintentionally, reinforce systems of oppression and racism. It is incumbent on us to unpack these systems that we interact with and dismantle these systems of oppression. We need to understand how our biases impact our lives, especially in our seats of power.
Whether you’re someone responsible for a school system or for our neighborhoods, ask yourself, how are we integrated? How are we not? How do we design the larger world and our mini world with friends and family? To be clear, biases exist across the board, and are not confined to one race. Kareem Abdul-Jabar wrote an article for The LA Times and talked about racism being like dust in the air. He said until we open the blinds and let in the light, we won’t realize that dust is floating.
Being a principal, or part of a family, we must acknowledge this [problem] and [observe] where we see language and biases and call them out. We shouldn’t just call out these biases, though. We need to call in and educate people on the lies they have been told. This process occurs human-to-human. When we see unjustness, we need to call it in and call it out.
Do you have a particular memory in your life when you personally felt a positive transformation? Can you tell us about this instance?
I will say that I have witnessed the transformation of others, and it impacted my life. There was a young girl at my school when I was a principal; her name was Nina. She had a lot going on: her mom abandoned her, she lived with her grandma, so a lot of turmoil was happening. School became her refuge. Between her grandmother and the school, we became this mini family. She was rough around the edges and had anger issues. Over time, working with her, going to counseling, and taking part in different programs, and supports, we slowly began to see this transformation – she became who she always was, this bright light. She began participating in programs and showing up to school. Then, we got her into college. She went off to school, was there for a year, and kept in touch. Then, she went off our radar; we tried to keep in touch but lost track.
We assumed that she dropped out, was embarrassed, and back in the neighborhood. Three years later, I got an email from Nina. She was inviting me to her college graduation – she was graduating from a school in California! She attached pictures, one of her on the red carpet! She majored in Documentary Film and is now pursuing acting, doing commercials, chasing her dream. This moment transformed my ideas! The seeds we plant now, we don’t always get to see bloom! I had the privilege to see how well Nina was doing. Still, the work needs to proceed, and we need to give the work all the same time and attention.
What advice would you give to any organization, afterschool program, school, or person if asked how to improve the lives of young people?
From my perspective, number one is realizing that we need to center ourselves around healing. As opposed to being hurt, we need to think about how to bring healing into our schools and organizations in ways that that our children trust.
With COVID-19, we have tuned in more, and social-emotional development has become more of a conversation. But we also cannot underestimate the impact of adult-child relationships. What we know in terms of research, having one positive adult model at a youth agency or a nonprofit is not only important, but changes [children’s] life outcomes.
The third thing I will say is, what are people reading? How are they tuning into the latest thinking to best understand the complexities our children face? All too often, we know what we know, but we do not take time to ensure we understand young people.
As we strike out in the nonprofit world, do you see any particular success stories in your experience with Chicago Beyond that you could share with us?
I will give you two quick examples. The Chicago Public Schools’ district has 350,000 young people; it is the third-largest district in the country. For good or for bad, our young people have a high prevalence of trauma. 75-85% of young people have experienced or witnessed community violence. Those are huge numbers! The district didn’t have a way to address their trauma.
About two-and-a-half years ago, [Chicago and Beyond] started working with Chicago Public Schools to develop the first blueprint for holistic trauma support, not just for students but also to support the staff, counselors, even the office [workers]. This effort is called the Healing-Centered Framework; this is exciting! Other districts have picked up the framework and are trying to implement it to make the school district more healing centered.
Another example – one of my former students had a best friend who had been shot and killed. He was in danger of being shot himself. In fewer than two months, along with community organizations, we developed a safe house for people like this former student to find a place where they could anonymously land and start their new life. The safe house has been impactful in terms of the ripple effects in this young person’s life. He can obtain a GED and begin working. The safe house has helped dozens of other young people. The Chicago Tribune even published an editorial in support of the safe house and said there should be more initiatives like this. We’re still thinking about how to interrupt violence in our city.
How does a thriving community appear to you? What are the people and their lives like?
For a utopian society, we need to be free. It means everyone has a fair shot. We know now that where you end up in life is based on your zip code more than anything else. For me, a utopian world is where everyone can be the highest versions of themselves, not only in their careers but also their emotional states because that is freedom – when we have the opportunity to choose. Right now, young people and black children, especially those living in poverty, are not given a full slate of choices.
As we look forward to hearing Liz speak…
Although the past few years have been difficult, we’re moved by the work that Liz and other organizations are doing across the country.
We sincerely hope you will join us on Tuesday, October 26, at 11:30 am at Embassy Suites La Vista. You can get tickets today at: https://www.nebraskachildren.org/stay-current/special-events/changemakers.html.