‘At promise’ young adults improve the city and their lives through training program

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm

Changing neighborhoods for the better. That’s what Chris Litzau says can lead to steady improvement in Milwaukee’s central city.
Litzau is the executive director of the Milwaukee Community Service Corps (MCSC), a modern version of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The modern-day corps has been named as a recipient of the Denali Initiative Fellows program, which cultivates entrepreneurial skills in leaders of the non-profit sector. The corps was selected because of its forward-thinking brownfield remediation program.
MCSC is a development, job training and placement program for young adults ages 18 to 23. Rather than call the program participants “at risk”, Litzau prefers to call them “at promise” individuals – those that “need a little more encouragement to develop that steppingstone on to the next level and move up through to family-sustaining jobs and employment or continued education.”
The corps is crew-based, with participants choosing what type of service they’d like to perform out of four areas offered. It not only provides training, but a modest living allowance while the participants work through the yearlong program. The stipend helps break the cycle of low-paying, low- or no-skill jobs that many participants wind up taking in order to help make ends meet.
According to Litzau, the 10-year-old MCSC has served close to 1,000 young adults, most of whom come to the program based on word of mouth. Many corps trainees go on to higher education, some with scholarships, or apprenticeships in the trades.
The four areas of study include urban restoration projects that turn abandoned or deteriorating buildings into affordable housing in the central city. One such project is located on 25th Street and Kilbourn Avenue.
“That project was vacant and has been since the late ’80s, and prior to that it was drug infested,” Litzau said, describing the then 20-unit, one-bedroom apartment building that the corps rehabilitated into 10 two-bedroom apartments. “It will serve as a beacon for the community. That will be our showpiece for that area.”
The corps also has an urban conservation program that does landscaping, community gardens, neighborhood clean-ups, waterway clean-ups and other ecological projects.
The corps programs produce what Litzau calls “a ripple effect” on surrounding neighborhoods. By boarding up or razing rundown buildings, the community creates a negative ripple of decay on the surrounding area. But through restoration, clean-ups, gardens and landscaping, participants and area residents begin to take pride in the area, reversing negative trends.
“That blighted area that collected trash and collected needles leads to more and more people not driving near it which leads to more and more decay,” Litzau says. “Those things are exponential.
“So we provide this great opportunity to take a building, … come in, restore it and make it a catalyst to change that community, to generate additional development momentum,” Litzau continues. “To me, that’s exciting.”
The corps also has programs in human services that assist youth-serving agencies throughout the area.
The fourth branch of the corps is entrepreneurial, where the organization uses its connections to help start-up small businesses made up of former corps members find contracting and other jobs.
The brownfield remediation program finds itself on the edge of the entrepreneurial category, which led to the Denali fellowship.
In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency was providing a grant to fund a pilot program to train workers as field technicians in brownfield remediation work. There was also the thinking that because brownfields primarily affected inner city and central city areas, residents of those areas ought to benefit economically from the clean-ups as well, says Paul Boersma, senior environmental engineer with HNTB Corp., a company that performs brownfield remediation.
HNTB contacted MCSC, which then applied for, and received, the $200,000 training grant from the EPA – one of 10 awarded throughout the US and the only one in this region, according to Litzau. Representatives from municipalities, public entities and private industry, such as HNTB and Sigma Environmental Services, formed a 25-member advisory group that developed the training curriculum.
“We basically said, if your objective is to train a high school graduate – or not even – and have him or her qualified to work as a field technician in environmental remediation, what kinds of training experience, what kinds of benchmarks would he or she need to achieve to have that person be marketable?” Boersma recalled.
A cornerstone for brownfield remediation training, according to Litzau, is the 40-hour OSHA certification. The corps used some of the grant money to hire instructors to train the participants, but is now exploring a “train the trainer” approach. The corps would save the $8,000 fee by having an in-house staff person qualified to teach future participants, and it would enable the corps to customize its training program as it sees fit.
But looking forward, Litzau and his advisory board saw potential for these newly trained and certified crews. In fact, HNTB wanted to sub-contract with MCSC’s brownfield crews when it hit a snag.
“We were doing some work for the EPA,” Boersma recalled. “And we were identifying some minority-owned business enterprises that we could use for sampling services. We proposed that we would use the service corps to undertake some of our sampling for us – we could actually use some of the students in the training program.”
But the EPA said “no” to the idea mostly because for-profit competitors took umbrage to competing with a not-for-profit entity such as the corps.
That’s when Litzau and his advisory board began kicking around a for-profit spin-off of the corps’ brownfield remediation program. Litzau and a few other advisory members presented the idea, including a business plan, at the Brownfields 2000 conference in Atlantic City. The presentation, according to Litzau, was years ahead of the other nine pilot programs that had also received EPA grants in 1998, and that led to MCSC’s participation in the Denali Initiative Fellows program.
The Denali Initiative features a curriculum taught by faculty members from such notable schools as Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Babson and Northwestern. Over a three-year period, Fellows build entrepreneurial skills, launch a social enterprise project and qualify for up to $75,000. Litzau said the Denali program begins in two months.
In the meantime, MCSC continues to explore its spin-off possibilities for its brownfield program. Litzau said he’s fielded inquiries about MCSC-certified crews helping with the clean-up of the US Leather site in downtown Milwaukee, and there is the possibility of exporting the crews to Chicago to help clean up lead-based paint contamination in some housing projects.
April 13, 2001 Small Business Times

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