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Client Spotlight: Groundwork Milwaukee

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

A Q&A with Deputy Executive Director, Damien DeBuhr

Colorful Connections is proud to be partnering with Groundwork Milwaukee (for purposes of this article, GW MKE) in their search for a Director of Operations. This critical role will be on the senior leadership team and is the first role of its kind. GW MKE is a nonprofit organization and land trust. Their work is primarily done through:

1. The transformation of brownfields into community spaces including gardens, orchards, art exhibits, and gathering places.

2. The facilitation of programs that are designed to educate, train, and empower youth, community members, veterans, and volunteers.

3. The protection of urban waters through the installation of rainwater harvesting structures, the strategic integration of green infrastructure, and habitat restoration for aquatic native species.

Their work reflects the objectives of the national chapter of Groundwork USA, which is the only network of local organizations devoted to transforming the natural and built environment of low-resource communities to advance health, equity, and resilience.

We could not be more thrilled to be conducting this search for their next great leader who will enable their small but mighty team to develop to the next level, while serving the community and earth. To gain deeper insight as to what they are all about, especially as it pertains to DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion), Talent Connector, Sarelle Caicedo, spoke with Damien. We hope this Q&A will provide those interested in supporting GW MKE with valuable insight, as well as those who are considering applying for the role.

Q1: What does DEI mean to GW MKE, or how is DEI defined there?

A1: There is no official DEI statement, but we are mission-driven, being a nonprofit organization, and our mission informs how we approach DEI. (To bring about the sustained regeneration, improvement, and management of the physical environment by developing community-based partnerships that empower people, businesses, and organizations to promote environmental, economic, and social well-being.) What stands out to me is the fact that we are empowering businesses, people, and communities for economic well-being. Working on the Northwest side of Milwaukee, a predominantly Black area, is important because the work and goals are resident-driven. In terms of focusing on diversity -- we bring in a wide net of people into what we are doing, and as it relates to equity, it is the action we are doing that is valuable to the community. Our efforts would not be effective unless it is meaningful to the people in the organization and who we are serving. Our role is not to tell the communities we serve what they should be into regarding climate change -- we are asking them about their lived experience surrounding climate change. For inclusion, when it all comes together, we ask ourselves, how do the stakeholders feel? Are the people staying? Our organization represents all of Milwaukee, and long-term impact and advocacy for the groups we serve is tantamount.

Q2: When did you know it was time to get intentional about your ongoing DEI efforts?

A2: When it comes to DEI efforts as a team, we prioritize flexibility. We are here to help team members express their identities, hope to garner a culture of being open to feedback on policies, and have an open-door approach. Specifically, regarding representation, over the last few years, we made a soft goal of more representation for those working the program to reflect those being served.

Q3: What positive outcomes or benefits have you seen because of GW MKE’s commitment to DEI?

A3: An increase in representation. We must be credible messengers in the community. The fact that we have such a strong reputation has increased community trust in us. It was not long before trust was established and has since been bolstered. Our organization is walking the walk not just talking the talk. Our staff has always been focused on being supportive and ensuring everyone to be their best selves. Also, Ground Corps has been a loose program, with no official end date to it, participants can keep coming back if they want. A recent win was hiring our first full-time year-round Ground Corps employee in March 2023. Ground Corps is a green employment program where members are trained in green infrastructure construction and maintenance and are provided professional development training.

Q4: How do you ensure that DEI is not a priority left to just your HR department, or employees from diverse backgrounds? Simply put, do you see true allyship taking place at GW MKE? If so, how?

A4: It is baked in, so we have a strong resident focus and deal with potential issues together and directly. We aim to always demonstrate a culture of feedback from those who we work with and for, feedback and ideas do not just come to the top or from the top. Our work is collaborative, necessitating drive, curiosity, and cultural competence. At our organization, we prioritize the well-being of our staff by actively encouraging them to take time off as needed. We understand that the summer months tend to be busier, but we firmly believe that they should also be a time for enjoyment and relaxation.

Q5: What does GW MKE do now, or hope to do for employees from diverse backgrounds and identities to feel like they have a voice just as much as others?

A5: Our open-door approach is not just something we say we do; we really do it and mean it. Whoever comes in, we recognize they are an individual. Every new person who joins GW MKE becomes a member of the team -- we are a living and breathing entity, and know that we cannot stay the same, which is a very good thing. Who they are as an individual will impact the group, and there is a process of adaptation no matter what.

Q6: How have DEI initiatives been received by your staff, and what has been done to ensure executive-level buy-in?

A6: The executive and admin team are involved, active, and our goal of representation has been top of mind. As our culture grows and changes, we want to have conversations internally about what it means to speak up, fully demonstrate our commitment to everyone knowing they have a voice and being able to act on it, while continuing to emphasize transparency and accountability.

Learn more about Groundwork MKE here.

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