Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Evisha Ford of iCan Dream CenterIs Helping To Change Our World

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Five things that I wished I knew when I started was that I would need a bookkeeper almost immediately to keep pace with the complex requirements associated with a nonprofit. This would have saved me a great deal of time, exhaustion, and frustration when preparing to file taxes. It also would have positioned me to receive grants and donations sooner.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Evisha Ford.

Dr. Evisha Ford is the Founding Executive Director of iCan Dream Center, a therapeutic school in the suburbs of Chicago. She brings to her role over a decade of experience in public education, having filled the roles of Assistant Superintendent, Director of Special Education, and Social Worker. Dr. Ford dedicates her professional life to making a positive impact by addressing barriers for marginalized students.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In my work as a public special education administrator, I recognized and sought out opportunities to serve students better. I have never left a leaf unturned. In my five-year tenure, I developed or revamped five programs in the school district where I was hired to lead the special education department. It is not surprising that during my doctoral studies I chose to study the most effective programmatic features for success for students with disabilities. I discovered a critical gap in services in our school district for post-secondary programming and supports for students with disabilities who were not on track to graduate. In both instances, these students are vulnerable to involvement in the criminal justice system. While it is not the direct responsibility of the school district per se, these students tugged at my heart! So many times, these were the students whose parent that I had to look across the table at during expulsion hearings. These were also the students who may have been encouraged to enroll in a GED Program which is synonymous for being asked to drop out of high school because the completion rate is so low that it is laughable. If these students managed to earn a diploma, they would end up sitting on the couch playing video games, spend their days surfing social media or gravitating to more nefarious activities because of conditioning from traumatic experiences. Yes, these were students that the district could wash their hands of but they kept me up late many nights.

Naturally, I went to work developing a program to address their needs. I developed a staffing plan that would save the district money. I worked to get space donated in the community college because I believed that it was important to offer students dignity; they needed a space that was not built for secondary students because that environment had not proven successful for them. I even developed a partnership with the community college by which the students would exit with a diploma, transition/life skills and a trade. I was so excited to share my developments with the superintendent. Imagine my surprise when he halted my plans to develop an appropriate program because the district was amid a teacher contract negotiation and the optics of this program “disproportionately” benefit minority students in the school district. I pondered the reasons that I was given, none of which felt substantial, and my heart broke for those students who felt like an afterthought is this political bureaucracy.

Shortly thereafter, I sat in a church service and one thing that a guest speaker said during the message that still echoes in my soul is “if you see the need, that’s the call.” It was in that moment that I began to DREAM for these marginalized students in a way that perhaps no one else had. I began to think outside of the confines of the public school system and enhanced my original program design exponentially. It became apparent that this program was intended to manifest but in an entirely different setting. Some months later, I submitted a letter of resignation. The iCan Dream Center was founded in March 2013, from that time until now, we have served as the midwife to the dreams of hundreds of students who did not fit the public-school mold but whose dreams were brought to life by individuals willing to see and call out their potential.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In our early days, I worked several jobs to keep the doors open and compensate our two paid team members. It was a tough season; I spent a considerable amount of time pondering my decision to leave my comfort zone as an employee and move into social entrepreneurship. Each month I awaited checks to cover the costs of supplies, insurance, occupancy, and other expenses that accompany a brick-and-mortar business. One month, I didn’t have enough money to make the lease payment and the due date was close. I was invited to a women’s luncheon and attended reluctantly. I was disinclined because I didn’t have the “extra” time or money, but it was the third invitation and I felt badly to decline yet again. At the luncheon, the speaker delivered just the motivation I needed in that season! I met women with whom I am still in contact, and I had conversations with so many inspirational women in the marketplace. I shared the impact that the organization was having on neurodiverse youth and exchanged business cards with over a dozen people. About a week later, I receive a check from a woman that I had spoken to in passing for the exact amount that we needed to make the lease payment. I hold this story in my heart because it was the first of many occasions that iCan Dream Center received such timely provision.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the biggest mistakes that I made was not hiring a bookkeeper. In my mind, we didn’t have much money so there wasn’t much to the books to keep. I attended enough workshops to know that it was something that would be beneficial eventually. Eventually arrived rather quickly when it was time to file taxes the first time. I was sitting in a pile of receipts, organizing the small pieces of paper by category for what felt like one week. It was completely overwhelming. Laborious and daunting. At that time, it didn’t feel funny, in fact, I may have been reduced to tears. I have sense adopted the mindset that if something will be humorous later to try to laugh in the moment. I contracted an accountant and bookkeeper the very next fiscal year which was timely to prepare for our required annual audits. Even if I had been able to navigate QuickBooks it would not have replaced my CPA’s insight and guidance which has truly proven invaluable as we grew from a $20k to a $2 million operating budget in 9 years.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

iCan Dream Center is a school for youth with disabilities. We serve early learners and their families ages 3–9 and secondary students ages 14–22. I realize that alternative settings are often the “to” in the school to prison pipeline, so I was very deliberate in designing the space for our leaners who don’t fit the public-school mold. We help our students to dream- to push beyond the internalized barriers imposed on them- and to write their own story. iCan Dream Center is a welcoming environment for students and we are also committed to serving the families. Our mission is to fuel dreams by empowering youth and their families with the skills to thrive.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The story that comes to mind is one of my favorite students, Guy. When he was referred to us by the school district, admittedly, we were reluctant to enroll him. He attended several alternative schools and at his last school, he punched a teacher. We interviewed him and within 5 minutes, I knew that he would be a part of the iCan Dream Center family — though he wasn’t our “typical” student. I recall meeting with him in my office. At that time, I was both the Executive Director and Social Worker. I told him that this was a fresh start and that his past was just that and he shared his dreams with me.

We never witnessed the character from his file, and he quickly became a crowd favorite. The owner of the shop where we placed him for an internship would exit the building on extended school weekends shouting, “I love you Guy and I expect to see you next week.” He was basically living on his own and life outside of school was still a bit rough. At 17 years old he was incarcerated for about one year.

Fortunately, students who qualify for special education services can attend school until age 22. Upon Guy’s release he returned to us, his family, at iCan Dream Center where he earned his high school diploma. We worked to get his criminal record sealed and he received a job offer at the mechanic shop where he developed excellent skills.

I am not sure why he punched a teacher; I don’t recall the details. I know that we never saw the behavior in our setting. Guy beat the odds because he was surrounded by all this love and support. Some might say he’s just a lucky person; a few months later he won the lottery as well. I’d like to think that at iCan Dream Center all our students are “lucky” because we refuse to give up on them. Organizational culture and school climate school makes all the difference; this is the subject of my book which will be released in May 2023.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are barriers for people with disabilities when job seeking which often leads to unemployment, or underemployment, and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. At iCan Dream Center we maximize students’ educational eligibility which extended to age 22 to prepare them for vocational success. Too often, families are missing out on the opportunity to participate in post-secondary transition programs because they are often viewed as an option only for learners with more severe disabilities. This option is for all students with an Individual Education Program (IEP) and a viable alternative to the diminished success and independence that many students with special needs experience after exiting service. As an educational community we need to solve the problem of lack of access to services and stigma around services beyond high school.

Sady, even students, like ours, who have been thoroughly prepared to thrive sometimes have obstacles to meaningful employment opportunities. This is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the value that neurodiverse individuals bring to the marketplace. Business owners and leaders may not be motivated to invest effort and resources into providing what they perceive as “extra” training and support. If I could lead a movement whereby small business and large corporations were incentivized to hire neurodiverse individuals — I would do just that!

A final issue is the inability for qualified, well-trained, workers to obtain the requisite licensure. There is a legislative opportunity to address accommodations on professional licensure exams for people with documented disabilities. In March 2021, I was invited by Assemblywoman Jill Tolles to speak at a hearing on the validity and impact of bipartisan Bill AB225. The bill, which was later passed, was designed to adopt alternative means of demonstrating competency for persons with a disability in Nevada. My highest hope is that this kind of consideration and legislation will be the standard in each state.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as having influence.

I endeavored into this work to use my influence to ensure that vulnerable families, and their plight, is seen. My personal superpower is vision! I can imagine what does not exist, and this is particularly true for underserved individuals, and how to create it. I believe that I am called to the chief leadership role at the iCan Dream Center because of my vision.

However, manifesting vision would be impossible if I wasn’t supported by a group of leaders. I am not strictly referring to my formal leadership team. Our instructors use their influence to motivate our students to accomplish more than they could have imagined. My parent coach uses her influence to create a space for parents to be vulnerable, share their pain points, and she normalize their experiences. The school social worker uses her influence to mediate family conflicts; she leverages her relationships with community agencies to ensure that our students have adequate housing, food, and behavioral health care.

Leadership is influence! I am so grateful for my team who leans into their influence, daily, on behalf of the students that we serve at iCan Dream Center!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Five things that I wished I knew when I started was that I would need a bookkeeper almost immediately to keep pace with the complex requirements associated with a nonprofit. This would have saved me a great deal of time, exhaustion, and frustration when preparing to file taxes. It also would have positioned me to receive grants and donations sooner.

I wish I had a better grasp of the nuance of commercial real estate. My only experience with real estate was purchasing my home and I had never leased anything. I hired an agent that I knew and trusted but her area of expertise was residential property. She didn’t know about negotiating rent abatements, reduced escalations for multi-year leases, or even to request maintenance histories. We could have saved money on the first two leases with a commercial real estate expert. Fortunately, our current location was secured with the benefit of a team who understands both commercial real estate and nonprofit organizations.

The people in your inner circle will not necessarily jump on board to support you. When you are starting an organization, you feel like a ball of adrenaline. There’s an intoxication from the excitement of the impact that you can make on the community. You sort of expect that it will be contagious, and, in some instances, that is the case but not all. I can recall the disappointment that I had when close friends did not show up to ribbon cuttings, fundraisers, and other key events. Some are amazing supporters and contributors now; others have never even seen the inside of iCan Dream Center. I have learned to maintain a posture of gratitude and celebrate the overwhelming support that we have received.

I have met so many gracious people on this journey; there is power in networking. I have relied on my professional network for volunteers, thought partnership, donations, referrals and so much more. I have also been positioned to fill critical gaps for individuals and organizations. I wish I understood the power of making myself available to meet new people. I have now joyfully taken up the hobby of talking to strangers.

If I had the insight that most small business owners are still learning how to run the business, I would have extended myself more grace. When you start an enterprise, you will do everything from social media, direct service, accounting, contract negotiations, to cleaning the bathrooms. I knew that I could develop programs for vulnerable youth; I had done it successfully many times over. However, I struggled with feeling like an imposter when it came to business matters. I’ve lost track of the number of seminars, graduate courses, and business conferences that I attended. In one course, offered by the Urban League, the instructor set me free. He shared that “…unless you have a business degree, most small business owners don’t know how to run a business. They know how to arrange flowers, repair cars, or sell insurance — not run a business.” Once he normalized my steep learning curve, a burden lifted. I was absolved of this notion that because I had to learn about proper levels of worker’s compensation insurance and other “mundane,” yet necessary, business matters, and that there was someone better to lead this cause.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like to influence a movement that honors neurodiversity by celebrating organizations that hire individuals with disabilities. I would love to see a commitment to funding training programs that create a pipeline to make employment accessible across industries. Too often my learners are relegated to rote positions (e.g., cleaning) with little consideration for their acuity, interests, or gifts. We have built these types of training partnerships in the hospitality and healthcare fields for our students, all of whom have benefited from great employees during this hiring shortage.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” I am not sure to whom to credit as coining the phrase, but I navigate life with that in the backdrop. Everything noteworthy that I have accomplished has occurred outside of my comfort zone. This calls out determination, courage, and tenacity. A willingness to take steps when I could not see the path ahead. This has translated into small acts such as being in a room that did not feel particularly welcoming but choosing to forge connections. This posture led me take the huge step of leaving my secure school leadership position to venture into the unknown of founding a social impact organization.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hands down, Dr. Linda Darling- Hammond! I would love to hear her theories on what is next in education reform, equity, and developing trauma responsive spaces. I am in awe of the way she thinks and grateful for her impact on education. I have a book publication agreement with Solution Tree; I would be honored if she wrote the foreword. She is my social justice hero; I have a picture of us together proudly displayed in my office as a daily reminder that this work will have an impact on people who I may never know personally.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me personally on LinkedIn and Follow @iCanDreamCenter on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram and learn more about our organization on our website —

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Evisha Ford of iCan Dream CenterIs Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.