“If your vision is for a year, plant wheat. If your vision is for ten years, plant trees. If your vision is for a lifetime, plant people.” This is a Chinese proverb from Artika R. Tyner’s book, “The Lawyer as Leader: How to Plant People and Grow Justice,” and inspires Elizabeth Tolzmann, one of the amazing women Voices Magazine has chosen to feature. She strives in everything she does to maintain that purpose within her life map of “planting people” whether as a lawyer herself, teaching as an adjunct professor at St. Thomas, and serving on two different non-profit boards, or, as the new Assistant City Manager of Bloomington doing internal organization work, and external community engagement work.
Elizabeth Tolzmann, born in Laos, came to the US in 1980 with her parents, her sister, and her aunt, right as the VietNam war ended. She was only one year old and her sister was only three. She spent her earliest childhood years living in a 1 bedroom apartment with her mom, dad, aunt and sister, located in the area of Minneapolis that eventually became Uptown.
Ms. Tolzmann started kindergarten not speaking a word of English. Her parents were so new to this country they were still taking ESL classes and working full-time jobs to support the family. Ms. Tolzmann’s parents were well educated in Laos, her dad an engineer and her mom a nurse. But when they came to the US they were not given credit for their education and background and had to start over virtually from scratch. They both worked full-time production assembly jobs, and worked second jobs as well, while the aunt stayed home to babysit. That hard work paid off and when Ms. Tolzmann was in the third grade her parents eventually were able to buy a home in what is now the city of Chanhassen. Ms. Tolzmann and her sister attended and eventually graduated from high school in Chaska.
Ms. Tolzmann said that going to school in Chaska was great in terms of academic support and stable friendships, but it was not a very diverse community at that time. When asked if attending a school in an area with little diversity posed any challenges, Ms. Tolzmann said she doesn’t remember feeling uncomfortable. She said she just did her best and “conformed” to her surroundings. But for her sister who was slightly older, it was a little more challenging. Ms. Tolzmann said, “I think a lot of it was culture Identity. Because you know you physically look different and sometimes you feel like an outsider given the different cultural norms you have at home. For example, in my culture, we don’t do sleepovers. When I was invited to my very first sleepover, I didn’t even own a sleeping bag let alone had a ride to go to and from my friend’s house unless they lived close by. My parents always worked full-time factory jobs and they also worked part time jobs. So they couldn’t take us to social events or after school activities, so that was really hard for us. So when I say different, we just didn’t have things easy for us. Because we didn’t have the typical suburban parents that could help us with homework at night or drive us around to activities, it limited our opportunities to be more fully engaged and active in the community
Ms. Tolzmann’s first exposure to diversity did not occur until she attended the University of MN. According to her attending the U of M, “was the first time I felt what it was like to be in a place of where I actually fit in – not so much of being part of a crowd, but more of where I could be comfortably independent in my being and be valued for my unique background amongst a sea of other students who also had different backgrounds and experiences in life.”.
Ms. Tolzmann majored in Business and Marketing and was able to live on campus at the U. She said like any student “I probably changed my major 4 or 5 times. I went into film studies, psychology, considered nursing because my mom was a nurse. But I don’t know, I just didn’t feel it. And towards the end, I gravitated towards the business school and felt really into being creative, entrepreneurial and into marketing. I graduated with that, but it wasn’t until my very last semester that I decided to go to law school. I got married during that time period, and we bought a duplex in St Paul that we still have to this day, and so we were doing a lot of renting and doing the landlord stuff and thought why to deal with a lawyer to draft the leases…why not just be a lawyer and do it myself.”
For Ms. Tolzmann self-sustainability played a part in motivating her to be a lawyer, but that was only one part of her decision. She said, “The second part of it was really wanting to help families like my parents and their community. I’m constantly getting questions from them to interpret a document, contest a bill, or pay an invoice. I remember when we first bought our house in Chanhassen, I was only in the 6th grade, but I read and interpreted and the closing documents for them. At the time that was normal to me, I was constantly doing that. But it hit me later when I was an immigration attorney and I was doing a trial for a family from Guatemala. The family had a little 5-year-old girl with them. I was in private practice, so I had to ask for a payment, and we were sitting in a conference room at a deport hearing, and I had to say, I’m sorry but I have to collect the final payment. And the 5-year-old got out the check book, and she’s writing it out to the law firm name, and it just hit me that was me 25 years ago. When I think of things like that it makes me understand what an impact your world experience has meant but also what it means to be a facilitator for others. And that’s why I went to law school. To this day, I still get requests to help fill out health insurance forms, call the utility company etc. Becoming an attorney gave me the confidence to be able to advocate for those most vulnerable in our society..”
Ms. Tolzman worked for the law firm Davis and Goldfarb for 3 ½ years right after leaving law school. Then she accepted an opportunity to move to London England for an international immigrant consult company. “I think I did that for just about a year, then I came back to the US to open up my own law firm. I was moonlighting part-time at the Brooklyn Park Police Department while juggling my law practice and I saw a job posting for Community Engagement. When I saw that job posting it felt different from other types of government job postings I had seen. I didn’t know it at the time, but the job description was written by the community. It didn’t utilize typical standard governmental verbiage, titles and classifications It was the first job description that they brought in community members and asked them to draft up the language and qualities they want to see. It really spoke to me and mirrored my experience and passion in working with diverse communities. I thought maybe I can impact a highly diverse community in a more collective way than I could through individual cases which I enjoyed, but didn’t have as wide of an impact. So up until that time I had no government experience other than them being my opposing counsel for over five years. So I put my name in the hat and I got the position. That’s how I got started in government. I was there 3 ½ years. I left Brooklyn Park because I had a little one and it was difficult coordinating child care with the demanding and irregular schedule of community engagement. But where I found a lot of passion in working in Brooklyn Park was internal organizational development. I started seeing, experiencing and understanding the impact that institutional barriers can have on people. A lot of it was through the Human Rights Commission, the Community Engagement Initiative, and the community challenging the city in how they do things from the hiring process to building talent of people. I felt more impactful in the organizational development role. So when I left Brooklyn Park, I went on to work for Hennepin County Public Works. There I was doing primarily internal change management for the leadership team and various departments by aligning the business line’s mission, values, and goals with the County’s overall core values of customer service, continuous improvement, diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and workforce development”
While at Hennepin County, Ms. Tolzmann got the wind that the City of Bloomington was looking to hire an Assistant City Manager. Ms. Tolzmann knew the fairly new City Manager well, Jamie Verbrugge, as she had worked for him in Brooklyn Park when she did community engagement. “When I was given a heads up about the possible opportunity, I initially said thanks, but no thanks. I was really enjoying working for the county, doing internal organizational development work, taking the light rail into downtown, and leaving at 4:30 pm every day. But when the position was eventually posted several months later, what pulled me in was the community engagement part of the job description. It’s where my heart is, and you never let go of where your heart space is, what you’re passionate about.”
When asked about the interview process Ms. Tolzmann said, “Without a doubt, he (Mr. Verbrugge) and the city put me and the other two final candidates through the ringer. It was one of the most stressful and intense interviews I’ve ever been through. There were three panels that had like 8 people in each one and I think I spent close to 15 hours total writing essays and taking assessments. But when I applied for the position, I wanted to equitably earn it. Despite the perception of how I may have received the position, I know for a fact that I worked hard to earn the position.” When asked how she enjoys working for a different community, Ms. Tolzmann said that “Bloomington is a great community – it really is! The people have been warm and welcoming in my new role and the staff is one of the best that I’ve seen in terms of expertise and professionalism. The average tenure has to be around 15-20 years in Bloomington – when people join, they tend to stay for a very long time.” But she went on to say that Bloomington in some ways is just getting started when it comes to organic and grass-roots community engagement compared to what Brooklyn Park has already accomplished. “I actually have a greater appreciation of the work that was done in Brooklyn Park. Knowing where they were at and even though there were some frustrations, looking back I’m so proud of what their community has done in Brooklyn Park, because they are light years ahead of what other cities and counties have done in terms of community connectivity, outstanding volunteerism, and striving to be more representative of the community. They’re really a model to look at, the investment the city has made in engaging the community. Leadership is definitely important. It has to be embedded at both the council and executive staff level. When Jamie and I left, we both felt confident that enough seeds had been planted that there would still be great people within the organization and community to sustain the work.”
Now that Ms. Tolzmann is the new Assistant City Manager of Bloomington, she’s back to working what can sometimes be crazy hours. But, she said it makes a difference, “knowing I could work for a leader that was not only supportive of community engagement, but also being willing to be progressive and take risks beyond organizational comfort zones. Knowing that I could stand behind Jamie’s vision, but also knowing that he values what I value. He knew that money and title are not particularly important to me. He knew that I was driven by the passion of my work and that it had to involve making an impact amongst community and people. That’s what got me in – he tugged at my heart strings and played it like a violin. And he also knows that work-life balance is important and he’s been really good about allowing me to flex my schedule. There’s definitely more responsibility. I will say in this new position I’ve noticed I’m able to influence without authority, which in the past, let’s be honest, as a woman and a person of color, in mid-level roles in government it had to take me longer to have that impact. So I will say that although I’m not driven by title, I will say that the title of Assistant City Manager has helped me gain more respect and to be more influential in a shorter period of time.”
Ms. Tolzman’s diverse experience has helped her in this new role. “I just feel like my experience really adds a lot of value to the conversation… I have traits that are very different from a lot of people but I do feel like when I speak, people listen, and they really value the fresh perspective that I bring to the conversation. I find that very impactful just as I listen to other people’s experience as well.”
Ms. Tolzman balances her work as the Assistant City Manager of Bloomington with multiple other roles in her life in addition to being a wife and mother. She is a board member of Mines Advisory Group, an international non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that saves lives and builds futures through the removal and destruction of landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO), and other weapons remaining after conflict. MAG has worked in over 35 countries and was co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. MAG’s leading priority is to protect the lives and wellbeing of the most vulnerable individuals in contaminated areas by providing risk education and removing deadly weapons. Equally important, we focus on development by clearing land in affected areas to open access to agriculture, water, schools, hospitals, and roads. By listening to and collaborating with local communities, MAG concentrates on clearing areas that have the largest humanitarian impact, enabling local populations to propel themselves to economic growth. As a board member, I work to raise awareness of these issues, particularly my home country of Laos, where at least one-third of the land across all 17 provinces in the country is still contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
She is also a board member of the University of St. Thomas’ Adjunct Faculty Council serving on the governance committee to support adjunct faculty development, orientation, and onboarding.
And, Ms. Tolzman is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of St. Thomas’ School of Law teaching in the mentor externship program, where students learn how to integrate the law school’s mission of “integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice” into their personal and professional lives.
Ms. Tolzman said, “I teach students how to become well-rounded lawyers after they graduate, not how to practice, but how to develop people skills and adjust when life happens. Bad things, good things. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in life, you’re going to have people pass away. You’re going to lose relationships. You might have a baby. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in life, but how do you keep that mission as a lawyer?” Ms. Tolzmann said, “The mission I had when I first went to law school was to help the most vulnerable people in society. And I haven’t lost that tract despite the various professional pathways in my life from private immigration to government, and community engagement. My end goal has always been serving my community and I can confidently say that I’ve never lost track of that as my core value. I try to instill in my students, how to keep that vision in mind in whatever they do and despite what life throws at them.
Juggling so many commitments can be a challenge, and at one point Ms. Tolzmann came very close to taking a sabbatical with her Adjunct Professor position to make some room in her life. But then she said, “I attended a racial equity cohort… And one of the questions was, ‘How many of you have had a teacher the same race as you?’, and that was really impactful to me as an Asian woman. I thought about that and I don’t think I ever had an Asian professor. But then I got to reflecting because I have been teaching for 3 years at law school and I got to thinking, how many students in my class could say they’ve had a teacher from a different race as them? You know, that really inspired me. I was thinking about quitting teaching because I have so much going on, and with the new job, but that inspired me to think maybe I need to stay on as I think my diversity and unique experiences in various positions adds tremendous value to their learnings
Ms. Tolzman said, “Teaching at St Thomas as an adjunct professor, and serving on two boards, it’s hard to let go and hard to say no. But I do find that I’m not someone who likes the spot light. I don’t need credit, don’t like to be the center of attention. My gratification is knowing what I’m doing individually quietly behind the scenes, that I’m impacting people who don’t need to spotlight me. Another thing that inspires me is working with different generations within our rapidly changing community. We’re a transitioning community and we need to innovate our services and adjust to each generation’s needs while promoting the preservation of history and cultural identity. When I think of my son and my nephew who were born here, there’s this huge gap in cultural identity and appreciation because they didn’t have first generation immigrant parents like I did.. I think that’s going to be one of the biggest challenges facing our next generation, is the appreciation for their culture and what their parents went through. You lose that rich cultural history because you get absorbed in the American way of life so you don’t have that respect and appreciation for where you came from.”
And so, Elizabeth Tolzmann, amazing woman, wife, mother, Attorney, Assistant City Manager, Adjunct Professor, and nonprofit board member, continues to make an impact in whatever she does, as she strives to make a difference and impact in the community through connectivity, bridging cultural and generation gaps, paving pathways for people, and planting the seeds of people in the pursuit and growth of social justice.