Teach For America New York City, 1993
Chief Administrative Officer, JEVS Human Services
Liza Rodriguez always knew she wanted to build a career in public service. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, her profound interest in understanding the experiences of Latinos of different backgrounds in the United States drove her to pursue a degree in Latin American and African Studies. Rodriguez yearned for an opportunity to work in a field where she could make a tangible difference in communities that resonated with her own cultural heritage.
In 1993, during her senior year at Duke University, Rodriguez found herself applying to several service-oriented programs. It was during a career fair that she was first introduced to Teach For America. The fledgling initiative, just three years into its existence, seemed like an ideal first step towards a future in service.
“I always loved school,” Rodriguez reflects. “I had worked as a tutor and as a camp counselor, so I thought teaching was something that I wanted to do right out of college.”
The following fall semester, Rodriguez moved to New York and began her career with TFA as a second-grade bilingual education teacher in the South Bronx.
“The experience was transformative,” Rodriguez says. “TFA really put me in the path of public service.”
Three decades have passed since then, and Rodriguez has held a myriad of roles, from spearheading multiple research and technology projects for the City of Philadelphia to working in her current role as the Chief Administrative Officer at JEVS Human Services.
Throughout her career’s twists and turns, the values instilled in her during her time with TFA have remained unwavering. She continues to leverage her strengths in building meaningful relationships and breaking down barriers to improve equity of opportunity within communities.
Rodriguez’s early days in the classroom were both rewarding and challenging. Teaching in the South Bronx came with its unique set of challenges; the school was under-resourced, and teaching materials were in short supply.
“My classroom didn’t have enough books for kids, so I would go to the TFA office in downtown New York City all the way from the Bronx to make copies of books for my students,” she says.
Breakthroughs in Education and Beyond
Undeterred by the lack of funding, she sought out creative approaches to engage her students and introduce them to opportunities in their community that they could partake in, regardless of the inequities that existed.
Rodriguez says she challenged the school’s norms, jumping through hoops to get permission to take the students out on field trips to expand their understanding of the world around them. “A lot of things are done just because they are done that way, and no one is questioning it,” she explains.
She took the students to local parks, showed them educational landmarks in the area (a visit to the Statue of Liberty was a particular highlight for the children), and even helped them to obtain library cards from the public library.
Teaming up with other TFA corps members, Rodriguez also formed an after-school tutoring program. Her success in New York had been built through working directly with families and students to understand how they could most benefit from their education. Now, again, by developing relationships with both students and parents and listening to their needs, Rodriguez was able to improve engagement in the classroom.
“TFA gave us a lot of coaching around engaging families,” she explains. “I think that was the key, because I had parents that were supporting the classroom.”
Following the conclusion of her TFA commitment, and after attending graduate school, Rodriguez moved to Philadelphia, where she soon after began working at Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit in Philadelphia committed to empowering individuals and families to achieve economic self-sufficiency and well-being in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. There, she managed an adult training services program for the construction trades, working to expand the program to other trades. Her teaching background proved valuable as she built on her planning and relationship-building skills.
One of Liza’s proudest moments came in 2009, when she received a fellowship to establish a groundbreaking data-sharing agreement between the School District of Philadelphia and the Department of Human Services.
“If you think about it from a logical perspective, kids in the schools, a lot of them are getting social services and support from the Department of Human Services, but the professionals in those two departments are not coordinating because they can’t share data,” she explains.
Signed in 2011, the agreement ensured vulnerable children received the support they needed by connecting professionals from both sectors. It remains in effect to this day, often cited as a model for national foundations advocating for child welfare.
“There are very few jurisdictions around the country that have that,” says Rodriguez. “It created channels of communication between human beings that are trying to support kids and their families.”
A Career in Public Service Continues
Less than a year ago, Rodriguez embarked on her latest role as the Chief Administrative Officer at JEVS Human Services, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit committed to offering a wide array of social services, from vocational rehabilitation to adult residential services.
“We’re here because we want our [folks providing] direct service to have all the tools that they need to really build resilience and wellbeing and relationships and networks in vulnerable communities in Philadelphia,” she says.
In her pivotal role, Rodriguez oversees IT, human resources, and data and evaluation. Although no longer directly involved in education, her work continues to be fueled by values she learned while in the classroom. She also has found ways to stay involved in TFA—last summer, the alumna accepted an invitation to join TFA’s board, a decision that she says fills her with enthusiasm as she looks forward to contributing to the organization that played a major role in her personal and professional development.
“I feel very fortunate that TFA came to my campus and I applied,” she says. “There’s already been some great accomplishments at TFA in terms of strengthening the organization…and I’m just excited to see where we’re gonna go from here.”This is a paid partnership between Teach for America and Philadelphia Magazine