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Izabel Olson ’11 MA, ’15 PhD

PhD in Learning Sciences

Izabel Olson ’11 MA, ’15 PhD

The worst-case scenario when you say yes to an opportunity is that you may learn from a mistake, but the upside could be so much greater.”

Dr. Izabel Olson ’11 MA, ’15 PhD is the CEO of Salt and Light Coalition, a grassroots movement mobilizing individuals and organizations to serve survivors of trafficking. She received her MA and PhD in Learning Sciences from the School of Education and Social Policy. In 2017, Izabel was awarded the Illinois Secretary of State’s Latina Humanitarian Achievement Award. She was named one of the "20 Most Inspiring Chicagoans of 2020" by StreetWise.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

I am the founder and CEO of Salt and Light Coalition, a grassroots organization that breaks the cycle of trafficking through mind/body restoration and workforce development.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?

In all honesty, I never planned or expected to do what I do now. But my career as a teacher, curriculum developer, researcher, and a short stint as a Spanish TV show hostess (don't ask...) prepared me to start Salt and Light Coalition.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

I was serving as a volunteer yoga instructor at the Cook County Jail when I learned that 70% of the inmates that I worked with were in jail due to charges related to their trafficking cases. I thought it was preposterous that a woman could be victimized by a person and then again victimized by our society while the true perpetrator walks the street. I felt like I was well-positioned to do something about it with my background in research and curriculum development.

Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?

I admire every person I work with and I am so honored to be part of each of their transformations. I admire the quiet strength that it takes to completely change your life through hard work.

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?

What I love most about my work are the transformations that take place. I have worked with several women that had criminal records and now they are employed. They were able to move into safer neighborhoods. They are better mothers. Their transformation impacts their kids and communities. Their kids go to safer schools, they eat better, and they change the landscape around them for the better. Investing in women has a positive ripple effect.

Why Northwestern?

Northwestern has the best school for education in the Midwest. It was a simple choice for me. The professors are amazing. They care about your work and are truly invested in your success. I am still friends with my advisers and several of my lab peers.

What inspires you?

The women I work with inspire me every day. The strength that it takes to embark on a journey of healing is enormous; it requires vulnerability and risk. I am also inspired by our volunteers and staff—all women that choose to empower other women and who work hard because they believe we can all rise together.

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?

I think what led me to Salt and Light Coalition was the fact that I was never afraid to say yes to an opportunity—even if I felt unprepared or I felt like it did not make sense. The worst-case scenario when you say yes to an opportunity is that you may learn from a mistake, but the upside could be so much greater.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

We have a donor who is a graduate of the Salt and Light Coalition. She signed up to be a monthly giver. Every time I see that email arrive, I get a little teary-eyed. It means she sees value in what we have done for her, and that now she has come full circle and wants to invest in other women.

Published: September 15, 2020

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