Since starting her career as a social worker 35 years ago, Liz Yeo has worked in the community sector across a range of small and large not-for-profit organisations, most recently as the CEO of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. Later this month Liz joins Paul Ramsay Foundation in the newly created role of Head of Alliances.
From a young age, Liz Yeo wanted to help make the world a better place.
Growing up around people with different backgrounds to her own, she developed an awareness to be appreciative for the things she had that many people did not, such as physical health and financial security.
Her father was head of a hospital spinal injuries unit whose former patients often visited Liz’s family home on Sydney’s north shore. Many months in hospital created strong bonds between staff and patients and some of these became lifelong connections.
“We always had people in wheelchairs coming to the house,” she says. “Lots of people to whom terrible things had happened. People who had not only become paralysed, they’d often lost livelihoods, partners, homes and the sense of being in control of their life.
“I grew up conscious of how easily life could deal you a different hand through no fault of your own. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about how I could contribute to making things better, even if only for a few people.”
It’s a question that has guided Liz throughout her career, from her first job as a social worker to CEO of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, an organisation that provides frontline services across Sydney’s Inner West for people at risk of homelessness and social isolation.
Later this month Liz will join Paul Ramsay Foundation (PRF) in the newly created role of Head of Alliances.
PRF’s Acting CEO Kristy Muir says the role was created to work with allies across sectors to help drive systems change.
“Complex problems require more than siloed responses for longer term change,” she says.
“This role is a unique opportunity to lead, shape and drive purposeful cross-sector collaborations aligned to a shared purpose of breaking cycles of disadvantage.
“Liz has deep expertise working in and with communities and building alliances across sectors for social good. She is an incredible person, leader, facilitator, and connector of people.”
Throughout Liz’s 35 years in the community sector, she has been dedicated to working with others to achieve positive social outcomes.
When Sydney’s lock-out laws saw weekend crowds pushed from the CBD to surrounding suburbs, Newtown’s late night foot traffic increased by 200%. The local community was concerned about increased incidents of drunken violence, racism and homophobia. Liz convened a round table with local Greens MP Jenny Leong, local businesses, organisations, and police, not to eliminate the potential problem by telling people to stay away, but to demonstrate to the new visitors the unique spirit of Newtown. As Co-Chair of the Newtown Vibe Round Table she oversaw initiatives to welcome the visitors into Newtown’s inclusive and respectful environment, such as handing out gerberas welcoming people at the train station and hosting free Friday Night Vibes concerts in the town square. The community collaborated on the initiatives, and all the small actions added up to something bigger. Incidents in Newtown over the period didn’t increase in proportion to the increase in foot traffic, which she counts as a success.
Liz says she’s always enjoyed bringing together people from all perspectives. And the Newtown Vibe Round Table is just one example.
“We had activists in conversation with police, which was previously unheard of. It gave us a reason to share information and to build relationships that we could call on for different reasons.”
After seven years running service delivery for people at the extreme end of disadvantage, she says the new role at PRF is a unique opportunity to spend the next part of her career focused on bringing about systemic change.
“There is a certain magic that can happen when you bring together people from all perspectives,” she says.
“If you put the right combination together – people who want to make things better, good ideas and some resources to make them happen – it’s totally possible to create social change.”