'I want women and girls to feel safe in every part of the city in every part of the day': New Chicago Foundation for Women CEO brings police experience to role June 04 2019 Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune To borrow a lyric from a certain Broadway musical, Felicia Davis is in the room where it happens. A lot. For 10 years she served as a Chicago police officer, including a stint as a detective in the violent crimes division. She helped create the office of public engagement under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and later served as executive director of Chicago’s Public Building Commission. Between those gigs, she served as vice president of administration at Kendall College and, later, interim president at Olive-Harvey College. She was a member of the Illinois Senate’s task force on sexual discrimination, harassment awareness and prevention in 2016. And now, she’s the CEO of the Chicago Foundation for Women, a 35-year-old philanthropic organization dedicated to lifting up this city’s women and children. Former CEO K. Sujata stepped down in March after eight years in the role. I spoke with Davis, 49, on day three in her new job. “What we do here at CFW is raise money to support organizations that are boots-on-the-ground supporting women and girls every day,” she said. “We obviously advocate, research and work for policy change. “But what’s really important,” she said, “is we get to be in the rooms where those women and girls are not. And our charge is to bring their voices into those rooms with us — to help shape policy and, sometimes, to change minds.” Davis grew up on Chicago’s South Side, first in Altgeld Gardens and later Roseland. “We were a housing-insecure family, a food-insecure family and a clothing-insecure family,” Davis said. “We were really poor. A lot of folks don’t understand what that really means.” Her mom dropped out of high school when she was pregnant with Davis. When Davis and her three siblings were a little older, her mom went back to school to earn her high school diploma and bachelor’s degree. Davis and her siblings often went with her to her classes. “She got a job at the county with benefits, and I felt that,” Davis said. “I felt our life change. That connection between education and the power to change one’s life — I knew it as a little girl. That’s why this work is important to me. It changes a woman and it changes her family, and that’s how we change communities.” In her new role, Davis wants to work with the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, the state’s attorney’s office and the Chicago Police Department. “I want women and girls to feel safe in every part of the city in every part of the day,” Davis said. “I want women and girls to be able to walk down the street and not worry about it. That’s not always the case. And that’s not just my professional experience talking; that’s me growing up as a little girl on the South Side.” She wants CFW to monitor progress on the state’s backlog of rape kits waiting to be analyzed. She wants to push the city for additional training and investment for combating domestic violence. “If CFW is a bully pulpit,” she said, “I want to use this bully pulpit to push and prod our public officials to act on behalf of women and girls.” As a police officer serving Englewood and Auburn Gresham and a detective based at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue, Davis saw trauma up close. “You meet people, sometimes for the first time, on the worst day of their life,” she said. “Sometimes you are the person who has to deliver the bad news. Sometimes you are the person who has to offer them their first comfort.” She also saw triumph. “The other side I saw were communities and people with great resilience, and I don’t think that gets voiced as much,” she said. “The tendency is to think those high-need communities don’t have strength and resources. And I know that they do. I’ve seen that they do.” When she speaks to community groups, to politicians, to potential donors, she talks about Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Jones — composites of women she grew up with and around her whole life. “Those are my names for the women who are on the block, who pull you aside, who are seeing everything,” Davis said. “They’re on blocks all across our city. Part of what I want to do is lift up their voices and the good work they’re already doing and support it to the extent that we can.” Davis raised five children. They’re 18, 20, 21, 29 and 31 now. Like her mom, she attended college after they were born. “Being a woman in Chicago is a different experience of being a Chicagoan,” she said. “Being a black woman is a different experience than the experience of being a Chicagoan that a number of people have. Being a Latina is a different experience than a number of people have. “I want to bring the wisdom and knowledge I have from our communities into the room when there’s an ordinance being discussed or a statute being proposed,” she said. “I know when there’s a diversity of thought, the results are always better.” She wants to enlist men and boys in the fight for gender equity. The week after Davis started, CFW announced a new partnership with the social service agency HANA Center to raise money for “healthy masculinity” strategies. “We need champions everywhere, and they’re not all female,” Davis said. “The change that’s required, we need men and women to do this work together.” Here’s to bringing new voices to the room. 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