Back to top

3 Questions with Liz Dozier

Friday, October 25, 2019

In the lead up to her keynote address at our 2019 SPARX Conference, we asked Chicago Beyond founder and CEO Liz Dozier to share a few thoughts on philanthropy, community and the power to drive change.

1. The turnaround story from your time as principal at Fenger High School is nothing short of extraordinary. How did your experience as an educator set you on a path to philanthropy and the founding of Chicago Beyond?

Prior to launching Chicago Beyond, I was a principal at Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side. At the time, Fenger fit the stereotype of what people think of inner-city schools – with too many kids failing, not just academically, but in their life outcomes. The graduation rate was 47%, the dropout rate was 20% and 300 arrests were happening inside the building every year. Over six years, my team, our students and I turned the school around. It required getting real about who had the power to drive change, and who was there to be changed. We got more proximate to our students by building relationships with them and their families. As a result, we saw an alternative path to checklists and discipline for our students. We grew conscious of the trauma they were up against, and replaced harsh discipline with more restorative justice strategies. We shifted the story of our school and the narrative around our kids, and created a healthier ecosystem where they could grow and thrive. Graduation rates eventually went up to 80%, the dropout rate plummeted to less than two percent, and the arrests became virtually nonexistent. The biggest shift of all, though, was the mindset of the adults. We could not suspend and expel our children as a tool to create excellence. We needed to bring a more holistic, inclusive, and healing perspective to our work for student outcomes to shift in a positive direction. We could only “heal” our way out of the grim outcomes that we previously saw.

Chicago Beyond was created to continue this fight against the inequities pervasive in Chicago’s communities. Today, we’ve invested more than $30 million in community-led initiatives and individuals who are fighting for all youth to achieve their fullest human potential, in Chicago and beyond. 


2. What do you think are the greatest barriers to achieving greater equity in philanthropy, and how can we as a sector and as individuals overcome them?

The greatest barriers to achieving greater equity in philanthropy is philanthropy itself.  At Chicago Beyond, we believe there is an opportunity to radically reconceptualize philanthropy. I started Chicago Beyond based on the premise that our work is about justice and not charity. Charity is a short-term solution that helps us forget why it is needed in the first place. By contrast, justice is inherently about recognizing how we got here and seeking to create an equitable 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.

How does this play out at Chicago Beyond? We get proximate to our young people, communities, and organizations we support. We not only provide transformative funding to our investment partners, but we work hand-in-hand with them to grow their impact. We invest in earlier-stage organizations as well as take on system-level challenges. We challenge existing constructs. For example, challenging the power dynamic between community organizations, researchers, and funders, which creates an uneven field on which research is designed and allows unintended bias to seep into how knowledge is generated in our sector. (Note: you can learn more by downloading the guidebook, Why Am I Always Being Researched?)

As a sector and as individuals, we need to shift our orientation toward the true purpose of philanthropy. Justice. That shift in orientation will require us to get more conscious of our biases, get more proximate, and stand in solidarity with those we aim to serve.


3. Rethinking power seems to be a common theme across your experiences whether at Fenger High School or now at Chicago Beyond. That seems to align well with the theme of Philanthropy Network’s 2019 SPARX Conference, which is Igniting the Power in Community. Can you dive deeper into how you think about power at Chicago Beyond?

The design of our society reinforces the haves and the have nots, and power dynamics reinforce the design of our society. Chicago Beyond seeks to interrupt this.

We have identified the following seven inequities standing in the way of impact, each held in place by power dynamics.

Access - Could we be minimizing our potential impact because of who we are allowing to meaningfully lead the work?

Validity - Could we be making uninformed decisions because of who or what we are allowing as valid inputs?

Value - Who or what do I deem valuable? Whose costs and risks matter, whose are invisible?

Ownership - Whose ownership is assumed, and whose must be earned?

Accountability - Are we holding the right parties accountable if our strategies create harm or do not work?

Authorship - Whose voice is shaping the narrative being told, whose voice is not represented?

Information - Can we effectively partner if information (e.g., costs, benefits, risks) is not wholly shared?

There is no arrival in this work of disrupting power. Our starting commitment in this journey is to bring awareness to our own biases and assumptions and find new ways to relate to each other. We know that simply making technical changes across the seven inequities without this commitment to openness will not work.

Find More By
News type