The Innovative Implementer
Interview with Elizabeth Dierksheide
At the Elmhurst Public Library on a sunny afternoon
How she’s changing the world: Elizabeth is the Chief of Staff at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall. This policy research center’s goal is improving the well-being of children and youth, families, and their communities. It’s Elizabeth’s job to think strategically, act as a liaison across the organization and to external partners, implement strategic plans, and make sure all the moving pieces are running smoothly. She gets things done!
About the organization: Chapin Hall looks closely at policies, programs, and practices and their effectiveness in achieving positive outcomes for children. Just recently, Chapin Hall released this study which revealed that one in ten young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) and at least one in thirty adolescents (between the ages of 13 and 17) experience some form of homelessness over the course of a year.
Chapin Hall’s research aims to look holistically at lives of children to determine how and where public systems and communities can act differently to best benefit the well-being of a child. From homelessness to after school programming, early childhood initiatives to economic support for families, Chapin Hall’s research is dynamic, urgent and necessary. Their “researchers meet regularly with policymakers, agency directors, philanthropic organizations, and community groups to assure that important findings are placed directly in the hands of those who can best use them.”
Elizabeth’s background is perfect for her position. Throughout her career, she gained a wide variety of skills that allowed her to practice and perfect the art of multitasking, strategic thinking, program development, and high-level decision making. While her passion and empathy for helping others, especially children, has always been preeminent, her first jobs didn’t involve children at all!
Q: Elizabeth, tell me about your career:
A: After I graduated college from DePauw, I was recruited to work in the Illinois General Assembly and then for Jim Thompson, Illinois’s longest serving governor. In my role as special assistant to the Governor, I was in charge of his daily briefing book. Each day, I pulled together a book of all everything the Governor needed. This included meeting details, talking points, policy briefings, press clippings, biographies, and more. I also did advance work – traveling ahead of the Governor to make sure everything was ready to go when he arrived. I got to see a lot of the state, the country, and even the world, across six years.
Immediately upon college graduation, I began volunteering through the Big Brother, Big Sister program and began to understand the importance of consistency in building relationships with young people.
When the Governor announced his decision not to run for re-election, I was offered the role of Manager of Civic Affairs at United Airlines. Here, I was responsible for United’s image as Chicago’s hometown airline and ran the company’s foundation. Under my leadership, we focused on improving education in large public school systems. While working at United, I was active with Chicago Cities in Schools, both as a volunteer and as junior board member.
After almost three years, I decided it was time to make a switch and align my values with my profession. I transitioned to Mercy Home for Boys and Girls as Manager of Youth Program Marketing. At the same time, I volunteered through Kolbe House’s prison ministry program, visiting teenage girls in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.
“I realized that work isn’t about the money. It never had been. I wanted to work for what I believed in.”
In 2003, after taking several years off with my children, I began working for Bryan Samuels, who had recently been appointed the Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. My time working with Bryan was pivotal. I learned so much about child welfare, the impact of abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence on child and adolescent development. Bryan’s focus was on bringing the use of evidence-based interventions and trauma-informed care to the child welfare system. After three years at DCFS, Bryan and I ended up working together on social-emotional and behavioral health initiatives at Chicago Public Schools where he was Arne Duncan’s Chief of Staff.
In 2009, Bryan went to D.C. to work as Commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families under President Obama. I returned to the education policy space, working for Advance Illinois and volunteering in my home school district.
In mid-2013, Bryan called to say he had accepted the Executive Director position at Chapin Hall. Like at DCFS and CPS, the focus is on bringing evidence into use to accelerate positive change for children and families. I serve as Chief of Staff and have had the chance to watch important research and policy work in action.
Q: Your experience is extensive! What would you recommend to someone trying to make the next step in their career?
A: For me, it’s been about having a breadth of experiences: public and private sectors; for-profits and non-profits; policy and practice settings. In my job now, I can bring together knowledge from having worked in the state’s executive branch and in a small private non-profit. The more diversity of experiences you have, the more you can bring to a position.
My volunteer experiences also shaped me. Across my entire career, finding ways to connect with teenagers was a constant. Through relationships built with young people in programs like Chicago Cities in Schools, I grew. While at Mercy Home, I met a 15-year old girl. Twenty+ years later, we are still in touch.
“These experiences stay with you. They ground you. When you see, first-hand, how hard it is to be a child or raise a child with limited resources, how can you not advocate for them? How can you not want to support them?”
In positions at DCFS, CPS and now Chapin Hall, I’m able to draw on these experiences and put them thoughtfully toward the way we research topics.
Q: What are some proud moments you’ve had across your career?
A: At DCFS, I was started a program called Find your Future to connect foster youth enrolled in college to high quality internships. We thought about how young people rely on their parents’ networks to get their first jobs out of school. So we thought, let’s be that for these kids. Let’s connect them with people just like our parents would have done for us.
At Advance Illinois, I started the Educator Advisory Council to bring teacher voice to state policymaking. This initiative reinforced for me the importance of garnering the engagement of those impacted in successful change efforts.
Finally, at Chapin Hall, I’m proud of Voices of Youth Count, an initiative aimed at preventing and ending youth homelessness. It’s been a privilege to be part of the team and make a contribution to the work.
Q: What advice do you have to share?
1) Find another person’s perspective.
“People underestimate how much value can be gained by sharing your thinking with someone else.”
There is nothing I do that can’t be improved by talking it out loud with someone who has a different perspective than my own. It’s rarely a good idea to make an important decision alone in a room.
2) Do what you love. If you know what you want to do, are prepared and persistent, you will find work in the field you care about. Be willing to start at the bottom, to volunteer, to learn. Present yourself in a way that people will want to find work for you. It may not be that day or week but they will remember you. It’s OK if you don’t have all the credentials, your approach, passion, and desire to learn is the most important part.
Q: What books are you reading?
A: I’m reading “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates at night while listening to books-on-tape of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead during my commute home each day. It’s both incredibly disturbing and important to put these two books alongside each other as together they make so apparent our lack of progress as a country after decades of slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights movement.