When the Homewood Science Center board of directors started looking for an executive director, they wanted someone who would “show evidence of fearlessness, fortitude and boundless optimism. The ideal candidate must possess a love of learning and a commitment to nurture and develop lifelong learning with all people.”
The science center project also needed someone who could gather the financial resources need to make the vision become a reality.
They chose Edie Dobrez of Flossmoor to lead the way.
When Village Manager Jim Marino announced her selection at the March 8 meeting of the village trustees, he noted her experience in early childhood education, education program management, grant writing, marketing and fundraising.
Her recent experience was not only related to raising funds; it was about the science of fundraising.
From 2012 through 2015 she served as executive director of the Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI), a project led by John List of the University of Chicago and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
“She has relationships with many academics, executives and science researchers,” Marino said. “I think Edie is the right person for this position and she’s going to do a great job for us.”
SPI was a $4.7 million, three-year project that explored why people give to charities and how to increase charitable giving, Dobrez said.
“I embedded myself in the philanthropic community, not only in Chicago but nationwide and even internationally,” she said. “I learned a lot about philanthropy, which is really helpful for (the science center) project.”
She also helped develop and manage the project’s Parent Academy in the United Kingdom.
Prior to the SPI project, she worked for three years to develop and administer the assessment program at the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center, a $10 million program funded by Anne and Kenneth Griffin.
That project was led by List and fellow University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-selling book, “Freakonomics,” and Roland Fryer, Harvard University economics professor.
The science center will have need of her fundraising skills and connections. The conceptual plan developed in 2015 by the Exploratorium, the public science center progenitor based in San Francisco, lists estimated startup costs at between $3.6 million and $6.4 million, not including building renovations.
The science center organization is in the process of forming a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, which will aid the fundraising process.
Local education advocate
Dobrez has long been an advocate for education locally.
She led successful referendum campaigns for Flossmoor School District 161 and Homewood-Flossmoor School District 233.
She first got involved when she learned an excellent teacher was likely to be cut from the staff because of funding problems.
“I said, ‘This will not stand.’ We have to have our schools strong,” she said. “It was a matter of getting everyone organized. I knew the majority of the community felt the same way.”
While she was chair of Infant Jesus of Prague’s Social Justice ministry, she and Anna Carvalho developed the first Healing Racism class. She served as the inaugural executive director for Healing Racism/Chicago Southland, which is now the Center for Multicultural Communities at Prairie State College.
An ecosystem for STEM
Dobrez said one thread that ties her various work experiences together is an emphasis on collaboration. That is something she expects to continue with the science center, which will depend on cooperation between local agencies and collaboration among members of the community.
One purpose of the science center is to add to the quality of life in Homewood by leveraging the community’s existing assets, she said. Among those assets is an existing focus on science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) in the three local school districts, at both public libraries and in park district programs.
“The science center could be the center for all of that, to connect everyone,” she said. “We plan to support everything the other institutions are doing, to set up an ecosystem for STEM.”
Collaboration will not only be key to developing the center and its programs and exhibits. It will be built into the experiences patrons have, she said.
In her career, one thing she said she found most satisfying is “the love and joy you see of families learning together. It’s a mechanism to ignite excitement” for science.
The science center began last year to sponsor activities at local festivals and at the Homewood Farmers Market. The emphasis has been on hands-on tinkering projects that engage the imagination.
Dobrez said those efforts will continue this year, and more events and activities will be hosted at the center, now that the process has begun to transform the former funeral home into a science center.
“We are the perfect spot for this,” she said. “We’re a highly educated, supportive, engaged and involved community. There’s already so much happening. It’s just a matter of organizing and galvanizing it.”
Disclosure: The author’s wife, Amy Crump, is a member of the Homewood Science Center Board of Directors.