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Liz Rolewicz Talks Trans-Racial Adoption, Resource Hoarding, and School and PTA Equity

[This interview was originally posted on November 12, 2018. Since then, Liz was elected to, and serves on, the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) D202 School Board]

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.

DE: Right.

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.

DE: Wow.

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 --

LR: 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.

DE: And how’s he doing?

LR: Great. Yeah, when we look at baby pictures of him, we’re like, who is that kid? He just looks like such a different kid and his whole face was different. He had little scowl marks right here [points to her forehead]. He’s come so far.

I still have concerns about how Black males are treated in the school system everywhere, and here. The disparities in discipline, and I’m always worried if he were to have any delays at all, that’s just one more strike against him. So, it’s been this sort of frantic throwing resources at him so he’s prepared for kindergarten, which I find much more urgent than I did with my white daughter.

With her, I’m like, she’ll be fine. Oh, you know, so she had a speech delay, who cares, she’ll be fine. Society’s not going to treat her different. Her teachers aren’t going to treat her different. She’ll catch up. But with him, there’s this urgency of, I can’t let him fall through the cracks. I can’t let him not stay completely on top of things, because I can’t trust society to take care of him. Like it’s entirely on me, you know.

One of the other things that sort of brought me to the racial work was all of a sudden being the parent of a Black child and realizing I’m totally unqualified to raise a Black child. And so, what can I do to reduce the harm of him losing his first family, his culture, and having to be raised by white people. Even though I had spent many years researching racism and bias, in college and afterward, but now I am responsible for a human being who is a different race than my own.

So I just started reading. I started reading first person accounts of adult adoptees who were adopted trans-racially. I read everything I could on their perspective of what it was like to be the brown kid in a white environment, and all the things their parents did that hurt them. And then the things their parents did right. And Pete and I just started forming our whole life around that.

That was when I got a better view of racism, from first person accounts of racism. And that’s when I realized the importance of finding racial mirrors for my son, finding teachers who are Black, finding Black churches, having other Black people in our life.

DE: And do you connect in Evanston with other white parents of Black kids?

LR: Yes, there are a lot of adoptive families who find each other. We tend to meet each other on Facebook or whatever. I wouldn’t say that that is predominantly our friend group, because again, my son doesn’t need more white people in his life. He needs more brown people.

So our friends are a blend of people, mostly it comes down to who lives near me. And who’s in our schools, because that’s where I spend most of my time. And we have a really supportive and tight foster parent community too. There are all different races and ages in that. Some of them are Black people parenting white kids. And some of them are white parenting Black kids. But we do have that commonality of raising children that are different than we are.

DE: Does your son ever come back from preschool and tell you things that have happened to him that reflect racism towards him?

LR: Well, we made a very conscious decision about where to send him to preschool. So, we toured many preschools and all of them claimed to be diverse and claimed to be inclusive. But I didn’t want him to be the token. So, he goes to an all-Black preschool.

DE: Kingsway Prep?

LR: Yes. He goes to Kingsway Preparatory School. His teachers are Black. And right now, all of the students are Black. Not that they don’t welcome all races, but that’s the current make-up right now. It’s been great for him to be immersed in Black joy and Black love. We can see it on his face, he’s more confident, secure, and I feel it’s strengthened his attachment to us, like he’s found his place in the world.

I made sure that he’s not going to be the only one ... because at home he’s the only. And he’ll be going to go to Oakton Elementary, which is Black majority. And I’ll probably put him in the African-Centered Curriculum [ACC] program, which is specifically geared toward Black culture, Black identity, Black empowerment. Those are the things that are the least I can do as a white parent. Like the bare minimum that I can do for him to make his life less disruptive by being adopted.

DE: Do you feel like you’re like a mama bear? Like you’re just planning to have to defend him?

LR: I think that day will come. Right now, I have been lucky enough to sort of curate a life for him that is very accepting and very comfortable. And I’ve put him in the safest places I can find for him. But I do think that when he gets exposed more to the real world, whether that’s elementary school or middle school, that’s going to come out more. And in our neighborhood, he’s very loved and accepted and neighbors don’t look at him differently, because he’s not the “only”. And so, he is living a very comfortable life right now. But that day will come.

DE: Yes, like during his teenage years when he’s out on his own and --

LR: I worry about that. When my husband's father died, he inherited this old classic car. It’s a ’64 Impala, and it’s one of those huge cars. And we were going to paint it and fix it up and keep it for the kids to drive when they’re teenagers.

And then we thought, okay, so if our daughter drives this around town, no one’s going to pay any attention. If a Black teenage boy is driving a big classic car around town, he’s going to get pulled over, you know. So we ended up selling the car because we we didn’t want it to come to that. It felt like we were inviting something to happen.

DE: Tell me about the PTA Equity Project (PEP) you're involved with.

LR: So, what we’re doing in PEP right now, it's our second year, so the goal is fundraising. Filling the financial need which is very great.

DE: So your goal is to raise money and then distribute it to all Evanston PTAs, trying to equalize all PTA funding?

LR: Yes.

DE: I don’t understand how that’s not a built-in thing. That all public schools in one city don’t get the same PTA funding.

LR: It's because of resource hoarding. I mean, it’s been a struggle. It’s been a decades-long conversation. And we still don’t have everybody in full support of it. People don’t want to share their resources. So --

DE: I mean, there should be a pot, a central pot, divided equally among all the schools ...

I want to ask you about the recent racist incidents at Lincolnwood School, children being called the N-word and the principal wrote a letter to parents about it not being tolerated.

LR: I commend Principal Max Weinberg [ Lincolnwood Elementary] for his letter, spelling out the racism, and insisting that this uncomfortable truth be addressed head on. When I do hear those stories, I think critically about Oakton, and about what work needs to be done there.

Of course I only have the white perspective, and parents of color could see it differently, but based on my interactions with other white parents, I don’t see a culture where racism would thrive. I’m sure there are incidences, but it doesn’t thrive, and people step in to stop it in its tracks. And I am so grateful for that. We’re a minority white school.

DE: Right.

LR: We’re 25 percent white. White kids don’t set the culture, they don’t set the stage, they don’t set trends at Oakton. They’re not the dominant group in that school. Which is really so refreshing and comforting to me to know that my white daughter is not growing up in a white majority school, with supremacy built into her school culture.

She, when she's not at school, just out in society, she benefits from being the white majority. But in the school environment there’s--I mean, bias still exists and there are still systemic issues--but in general white kids don’t run the school, you know. She isn’t in an environment where she’s being taught that she’s number one.

And so as far as racism, I think the white parents who do send their kids to minority white schools, they're intentionally anti-racist and probably teaching their kids anti-racism at home because they are going to a majority Black school. I think most of the parents there are intentional about it. Most white folks aren’t at Oakton just accidentally, like oh, we just happened on in here, you know.

DE: Right. They’ve done their research.

LR: Yeah, I mean I don’t know what other Evanston schools are like. But I do think that if you have a very small minority population and you have a lot of wealth amongst the white kids at that school, you’re going to have serious problems.

DE: Which is most of the schools.

LR: That level of inequity is so stark. Whereas, if you take Oakton, Dawes Elementary School, or Washington Elementary School, the economic span is not as great.

Everybody’s closer to the middle class and I think that makes a difference in the culture and in inclusion.

You have the wealthiest and the whitest schools, and you bus in children of color to diversify their schools. And you’re putting lower income kids with the wealthiest kids, in their neighborhood, and with their racial dominance. The privilege gap is enormous and I don’t see how it cannot be a recipe for harm. It's very cruel, for all parties. And it still boggles my mind that we’re all okay with this. We thought this was a good solution.

DE: And of course Foster School in the fifth ward was closed so white kids were never bused --

LR: Oh, because that would never happen, nobody would stand for it.

DE: I talk to so many African Americans and almost to a person they say that the beginning of the unraveling of the fifth ward was when they closed Foster School.

LR: Of course. Why don’t those kids have the right to walk to school too?

DE: And that the referendum several years ago to open a fifth ward school did not win.

LR: And you can see which wards voted it down. More examples of people who believe they are not racist, but can’t resist hoarding opportunities for their kids and harming others.

DE: So what's next for the PEP project?

LR: We plan to take on other aspects of equity like capital projects, bulk school supplies, and education and trainings. But we’re not quite there yet with the educational component. It requires an enormous amount of volunteer time. And also, the school district itself is doing so much of that work, and individual schools are doing that work. So we're happy to support what everybody else is doing and spread the word among schools and make it robust everywhere.

DE: Thanks so much for talking to me, Liz.

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