Evelyn Diaz, AM '98
Note: The Board of Directors of Heartland Alliance has unanimously approved the selection of Evelyn Diaz to serve as the next president of Heartland Alliance. She started her role on September 1, 2015.
As Commissioner of the City of Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services, Evelyn Diaz has an in-box that is always full. A graduate of the master's program of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration in 1998 with a concentration in administration, Diaz today runs a department charged with administering nearly $400 million in supportive services from birth through the senior years. "Not a day goes by when I don't use the process analysis skills I learned at SSA," Diaz says.
Diaz laughs while recalling that her career in social services began when she did a favor for her mother who managed a free health clinic in Elgin, Illinois. "After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, I wanted to have a language immersion experience. I taught English in a coastal village in Costa Rica for a year. But I also ended up helping out in that small community in any way I could, including visiting with people who were lonely. Then on the very day I returned home, my mother had to undergo back surgery and asked me to manage the health clinic in her place. After six months in this role, I was offered a job in Elgin's largest social service agency. Everything about social service was new to me, and I was eager to absorb what I could about how a successful charity organization was run," Diaz says.
Her supervisor and mentor at the time, Kim Cecil, AM ’97, was enrolled in the SSA evening program. When she noticed that Diaz kept asking about how the organization was run, Cecil encouraged her to apply to SSA herself. Diaz says she poured her heart into her SSA application because she knew of the school's excellent reputation and that attending SSA would prepare her for a lifetime of service.
Diaz says that during her first year at SSA she appreciated that her professors pushed their students to fully understand the complexity of social problems. At the end of her first year, Diaz won the Wilma Walker Award which is given annually to a first-year student who shows promise in the field of social work.
In her second year, Diaz lists Associate Professor William Sites as her most influential professor. As her academic advisor, Diaz says that Sites taught her a lesson she uses every day of her professional life. "I remember in one of our advisory sessions Professor Sites was critiquing a draft paper I was writing. He kept pushing me to make policy recommendations that were specific and feasible. He wouldn't allow me to take shortcuts in articulating solutions," she says. "It's really easy to offer up a laundry list of things policymakers can do to address a social problem. Professor Sites would say, 'Yes, but tell me how this idea would actually work; walk me through it in detail.' That's when I realized I had much more work to do."
With her SSA degree, Diaz became policy aide to Alderman Helen Shiller in Chicago's 46th Ward. Diaz found Uptown to be a unique training ground for understanding the complex dynamics at play in dense and remarkably diverse urban communities.
Diaz then spent eight years at the Chicago Jobs Council, working her way up to associate director. "I'm so grateful that I had Bob Wordlaw, the executive director, as a mentor to teach me how to stabilize and grow an effective non-profit organization," Diaz says. Diaz later went on to use those management skills as CEO of the Chicago Workforce Investment Council.
In that first phase of her career, Diaz built a broad and deep policy expertise in workforce development that caught the attention of Lori Healey, who was then Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff. It was a combination of her educational background, her management skills, and her policy expertise that opened the door for Diaz to serve as deputy chief of staff for human capital. "It felt like a huge career leap and I knew I had to grow a lot professionally, but I was ready to take it on," Diaz says.
"Today I feel so privileged to serve in the greatest city in the world under an extraordinary new mayor at a vital and challenging time," Diaz says. She believes that a client's success in one of her department's programs has more to do with the client than the program itself. "What inspires me is when clients are able to navigate through a system to achieve something great for themselves and their family. I want to make it easier for them to get there," Diaz says.