Liz Rolewicz is a soft-spoken straight-shooter. A five-year Evanston resident, Liz grew up in Rockford, Illinois and lived in Chicago for 20 years before moving here with her husband Pete to raise their children, a daughter, 7, who is their biological child, and a son, 4, who is African American and whom they fostered from when he was three months old and adopted at age two.
A member of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 PEP - PTA Equity Project, which began last year, Liz says she's been interested in racial equity since high school.
"That's when I witnessed racial tensions as a result of forced school integration in Rockford," she told me over coffee at Curt's Cafe recently. "But it was when my daughter started elementary school at Oakton Elementary School that I started noticing a lot more of the disparities in Evanston, and I found a tangible, local way to address it when I joined PEP."
And as the parents of a young Black son, Liz and Pete also have a very personal stake in working to level the playing field when it comes to racial injustice.
As a PEP member, Liz represents Oakton Elementary School, along with representatives from every school in D65, who are working together to ensure that all students in D65 have equitable access to funds that support important enrichments many PTAs provide -- field trips, in-school assemblies, community-building events, after school programming, and more -- regardless of the school they attend (read more about PEP here).
“In Evanston, elementary and magnet school PTAs’ abilities to fundraise ranged from $50 to $286 per student when we collected our data,” Liz says. “We decided that for our first step we want to bring every school up to a minimum of $70 per student. We know that this will not even approach equality or equity, but it’s a start, and can potentially fund at least one more enrichment per student."
Here's some more of our conversation--about where Liz grew up, about foster-parenting and adopting a Black child as white parents, about why she chose to live in Evanston, and about inequity in the city.
DE: You say that it was when your daughter started school at Oakton that you started really seeing racial inequity in Evanston. What do you mean?
LR: I was generally aware of inequities, but then I became acutely aware of it. You know, Evanston sort of prides itself on being this super liberal, inclusive place. But the amount of disparity is really similar to everywhere else. So, it made me curious like we’re not really --
DE: Any better.
LR: Walking the walk. And then, even meeting friends, neighbors, we all say that we believe in certain things but then our life decisions show differently. And then the impact of those decisions.
So, specifically, the things I was noticing were people either opting out of public school altogether, or crowding into certain public schools that they perceive to be better than others. Or fleeing schools that are “too diverse,” that they think are not good. And none of those things seemed in line with why we all say we’re living here. It’s like saying, we love diversity, but only to a certain extent, and then we will hoard resources and harm other members of our community by piling resources into white spaces. Each decision we make has a ripple effect into our community.
DE: Tell me about where you grew up.
LR: I’ve always had an interest in economic and racial issues because I grew up in a rural area, and then I was bused into schools in the city of Rockford. The city was highly segregated and very racially divided with a lot of racial tension, and they did a forced integration of schools in the 1990s, and busing, and the tension erupted while I was in school.
For the most part Rockford is a working-class town, but so much manufacturing left, and there’s a lot of poverty and unemployment. So I grew up surrounded by poverty, entered the factory workforce at 18, and then I worked my way to the University of Illinois Chicago when I was 21. And then after 9/11, I kind of desperately stumbled into an entry level job in investment banking, entering the world of college educated, wealthy professionals.
DE: So, your parents weren’t college educated --
LR: My parents had a little bit of education.
DE: You're the first college-educated person in your family.
LR: Yes. My mom had a medical certificate; she worked as an X-ray technician. And my dad worked in manufacturing and then he earned a white-collar position. So, it’s kind of interesting. I’ve straddled both worlds in that way. So I’ve always been really sensitive to economic disparities, growing up with friends in grinding poverty, and witnessing child and domestic abuse. It impacted me so much, and felt so unjust because these were great people who were just devastated by a lifetime of poverty and lack of mobility, and they are in the forefront of my mind in everything I do.
DE: That’s a really interesting journey.
LR: And then living in Chicago, the racial disparities became more clear. I mean there were racial disparities where I grew up, but my immaturity and the white environment didn’t allow me to see it.
LR: I mean, I saw it, but I didn’t know what caused it and I didn’t understand the systemic things behind it, which I do now. So, I’m able to look at it with a totally different lens.
My husband and I were living in Chicago, in a small Uptown condo surrounded by concrete. We had a baby, and we put a lot of thought into the decision about where to live because it was going to be a one-time decision.
And we had also become a licensed foster home. And so, when you don’t know what type of child might be placed with you, you don’t know its age, or race, or ethnicity, or anything. So we wanted to live somewhere that any child could be placed with us and they would be accepted in the community and in the schools. And it’s hard to think of a place like that, you know.
So, we kind of narrowed it down to Evanston or just staying in the city. And that was how we ended up here, and why we chose the area that we live in near Oakton School, because we felt like that would be a good school environment no matter what child might be placed with us.
DE: And what made you guys decide to be a foster home?
LR: It was actually something that we ended up talking about on our first date, which is not something people normally do! But my husband comes from a big family and they had 23 foster children.
LR: His parents ended up adopting six of them and they had four biological kids. So, as he’s telling me about his family on our first date, he’s telling me there are ten kids in his family, and I kind of lit up. I had thought about fostering children from when I was really young. I was actually getting to the point where, being single, I was starting to consider doing it as a single person, because the people I was dating didn’t want to do that, and I’d have to choose between having a partner or being a foster parent. So it was serendipitous when Pete tells me on our first date that he wants to foster or adopt children.
DE: And what inspired you to do it?
LR: There is quite a bit of different kinds of adoption in my family, so I grew up with lots of different cousins from different places, seeing family love children not biologically their own, and it always just felt like, if you have the capacity to raise biological kids, then you have the capacity to raise kids who need a home, and that both of those children are equal and deserve the same things. It’s something that everybody should consider.
DE: So, you put most of your energy into raising your kids and working on school equity.
LR: Yeah. When my son was in foster care, it was a full-time job. We had social workers and attorneys and all these people coming to our house all the time doing inspections, interviewing.
When we first got our son, he had a lot of medical needs and he had a full schedule of therapies. So by the time everything sort of calmed down, he was three, and I was able to get back to life, so to speak. And I threw myself into the community and into my daughter’s school and just started getting really interested in working on equity issues and racial issues.
DE: And having a Black son --
We’re a very conspicuous family. He’s a dark-skinned boy, so it’s clear that I couldn’t plausibly be his biological mother. So, it's kind of living within arm's reach of racism. And seeing how people treated him differently than they treated my white child. And even though it isn't me personally experiencing racism, it's still that proximity. It's so striking. So that's how I started getting interested in all these topics. And I find that I’m really passionate about it.