Sunday Breakfast: Elizabeth “Liza” …
9 May 2019
“I have a wonderful story about a dead body in an ice house.”
How’s that for an icebreaker? Elizabeth “Liza” Yntema of Winnetka has several such compelling stories to share, but they are not Gillian Flynn-esque forays into the macabre. They are family anecdotes and meant to illustrate how she, along with her husband, Mark Ferguson, became among the most effective of Chicago area philanthropists. It’s not about how much they have raised and donated, which is considerable, but the ways they have strategically directed that money to affect actual change.
Turns out Yntema comes from a long line of inspirational “kick ass women,” like her “grammy,” who lived to be 104 and at the age of 80, tied herself to the Illinois State House in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. It was these women who inspired her to resolve, upon her 40th birthday, to try one new thing a year that scared her or required a new skill—rowing, tap dancing, or climbing a mountain.
“I don’t learn that fast,” Yntema shares with a laugh, “so now it’s about every two or three years that I try a new adventure. Last year when I turned 60, I walked the Camino de Santiago. If I try really hard, I can rise to slightly above mediocre, but I have a lot of fun. I’m really enthusiastic about a lot of things.”
Paramount among those things is philanthropy, especially in the area of arts, youth services, and promoting gender equality. Yntema and Ferguson have marshalled their efforts on behalf of such institutions as the Hubbard Street Dance Company, the Lyric Opera, and the Chicago Jazz Phil- harmonic, as well as Youth Guidance and the Springboard Foundation, which funds non-profit grassroots organizations that focus primarily on after school and supplemental education programs. In 2013, the couple created a program at Holy Trinity High School to fund college visits for students in need. That program has expanded to a national initiative.
Her latest endeavor is her most ambitious yet, the Dance Data ProjectTM (DDP), which received its nonprofit 501(c)(3) status earlier this year. The DDP addresses long institutionalized leadership gender imbalance in ballet in America and abroad. Yntema, a Boston native, danced between the ages of 3 and 13. An avid ballet-goer, she began to notice that the primarily female audience and supporters of ballet were not being represented onstage or off. Consider, she says, Chicago theater—which is nationally renowned for the gender and ethnic diversity of the leadership guiding the companies—artisans shaping the productions and playwrights telling a wider range of stories, not to mention the casts bringing those stories to life. This was not the case in the ballet world, Yntema found.
“Season after season, production after production, the choreography was being done by mostly white men,” she says. “I would ask about it and the response was that women were not really interested in choreography or that there were no good women choreographers. That didn’t sound right, so I started doing research at my kitchen table.” Turns out she was onto some- thing.
Read the whole profile in the Daily North Shore.