Remarkable Woman: Liz Cicchelli

PoliticsCrime, Law and JusticeHuman Rights WatchAuction ServiceAfghanistanDave EggersSeptember 11, 2001 Attacks

A few years after stepping away from her professional life to focus on raising her two daughters, Liz Cicchelli itched to sink her teeth into something beyond volunteering at her kids' school.

She found something way beyond.

Invited by a friend to the annual Voices for Justice fundraising dinner for the Chicago Committee of Human Rights Watch (hrw.org/cities/chicago/committee), Cicchelli was bowled over by the organization's work and invited its director to coffee to learn how she could get involved.

Within four years, Cicchelli had made a rapid ascent to co-chair the Chicago Committee, one of 18 around the world that help raise money for and spread the word about the work of Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit that investigates and exposes human rights violations that run the gamut from toxic tanneries in Bangladesh to abuse of the mentally ill in Ghana.

Jobi Cates, director of the Chicago and Midwest regions for Human Rights Watch, said it's difficult to get people to care about issues "not in their backyard," but with Cicchelli's help, the Chicago Committee has grown from 45 to 75 active members and doubled the funds raised at the annual dinner, to $965,000 last year from $460,000 in 2008.

At last year's Voices for Justice dinner, a somber occasion that doesn't leave anyone eager to bid on a private Caribbean boat cruise, Cicchelli and fellow organizers decided instead to auction off items directly related to the mission, such as a research trip to South Africa or dinner with an advocate. Introducing a device called BidPal, which allows people to bid anonymously from anywhere in the room, Cicchelli helped the auction raise $80,000, eight times more than in prior years.

Marjorie Benton, a prominent Chicago philanthropist and a member of the committee, said her "socks were knocked off" by Cicchelli, whose humor, fun and "can-do" optimism rope people in.

"She's a born leader, and that's the hardest thing to find," Benton said.

Cicchelli, 43, who has bright blue eyes and an easy laugh, worked in client services at Leo Burnett for seven years and then for six years in admissions at Francis W. Parker School, where she is an alumna and where her daughters are enrolled, before deciding to stay home with her kids.

It was a difficult decision, she said, as she worried about being financially dependent on her husband and that her intellect might suffer from too much Elmo.

Cicchelli, who is married to Rob Buono, a former real estate developer who last year became co-CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee, said she feels blessed to have the privilege to not work if she wishes not to, but she also feels a responsibility to make valuable use of her time.

In addition to volunteering at Parker and at Human Rights Watch, Cicchelli helps run Granor Farm, a certified organic fruit and vegetable farm outside Three Oaks, Mich., that she and her husband founded five years ago as a way to give back to the community. The farm, which has 90 shareholders in its Community Supported Agriculture program and participates in the Green City Market in Chicago, has hosted camps for kids and an internship program for college students.

The family also has given generously to Christopher House, which supports at-risk kids, and to Marwen, a nonprofit that brings visual arts programming to underserved populations. (Buono serves on both boards.)

"Both Rob and I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to participate in a larger community and to give back in ways that are more than just writing a check," Cicchelli said, "but something people can actually touch and experience."

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Why did this particular cause (Human Rights Watch) strike a chord with you?

A: While I can't go out and do the research, the ability to support the people who do is quite fulfilling to me. And it also is a wonderful message to my girls, to think outside of their own bubble and recognize the challenges that are out there, and that we have a responsibility to help fix those challenges.

Q: What's your proudest accomplishment?

A: My girls (Grace, 12, and Eleanor, 9). I know that's so Hallmark card. … But I watch them and the choices that they make and the way they're growing up, and I'm incredibly proud of who they're becoming.

Q: What's your greatest mistake?

A: I did not keep in touch with people from my childhood who played a very important role in my life. I let too many years pass, and I didn't keep the relationships going, and I miss those.

Q: What side gets cheated most, the personal or the professional?

A: I have found a very good balance, and it's a balance that's evolving as my kids get older. It gives me more room to pursue the work I want to do with Human Rights Watch and the farm. But the farm and Human Rights Watch also give me plenty of room to do what I need to do with my family. I feel very lucky. … I have lots of conversations with friends of mine, women who are trying to figure that out. Our kids are getting older, and we want to pursue other interests. They say that you should be with your kids when they're little, but as they get older, their problems become far more complex, (and) they almost feel like they need you more.

Q: What's the best thing your mom or dad taught you?

A: I would have to say the importance of family. And the importance of family from the standpoint of being there for one another, helping one another, accepting family members for different points of view and ideas and pursuits. At the end of the day, if you don't value your family and where you come from, it's going to be harder for you to make connections in the greater world.

aelejalderuiz@tribune.com

Drawing inspiration

We asked Liz Cicchelli to name her current favorite books:

"I'm reading this amazing book right now by Dave Eggers, called 'Zeitoun,' which is nonfiction and revolves around this family that lives in New Orleans and was there during Katrina. I'm actually reading it for the Human Rights Watch book club. Another book that's fascinating is called 'The Places In Between.' … (Author Rory Stewart) walked across Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. This guy has nine lives, and it was a wonderful way to learn about Afghanistan."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsCrime, Law and JusticeHuman Rights WatchAuction ServiceAfghanistanDave EggersSeptember 11, 2001 Attacks
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