Leo Ries, executive director of LISC Milwaukee (Local Initiatives Support Corporation)
Address: 660 E. Mason Street, #5, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Industry: Nonprofit community development
Leo Ries is capping 15 years as executive director of LISC Milwaukee this week. The nonprofit organization, grounded in a mission to revitalize Milwaukee neighborhoods, announced his leave earlier this month.
In a Q&A with BizTimes Milwaukee, Ries reflects on his accomplishments at the helm of LISC and shares his hopes for the organization’s future.
Why are you departing LISC Milwaukee?
“The short answer is – ‘it’s time.’ LISC is in a good place and will benefit from someone with a fresh perspective and renewed energy. I’m at a point in my life where I’m able to cut back but still young enough to contribute in other ways. It is probably also worth noting that my wife, Marie Kingsbury, retired a year and a half ago from her position as executive director of the Waukesha Women’s Center. Every morning when I leave for work, I cannot help but notice how serenely and contentedly she sleeps.”
Looking back over the last 15 years of your leadership, what accomplishments make you most proud?
“As I stated during the MANDI program, the re-launch of the ACRE program and LISC’s relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department have been important contributions to the well-being of our community in recent years. I’ve also been involved with more real estate deals than I can count. But in terms of the last 15 years, the biggest accomplishment, I would have to say, has been the opportunity to support and promote the work of neighborhood development partners. Yes, Milwaukee has its challenges, but you cannot help but be inspired and encouraged by the remarkable individuals and groups who work every day, often without recognition, to turn things around. Everyone wants a simple solution to complex problems, but there are no simple solutions. Many families and neighborhoods in Milwaukee struggle with hopelessness and helplessness. They also struggle with economic trends and public policies that are stacked against them. To combat that, you have to create a vision of a new reality, mobilize your friends and neighbors, and work with tenacity and optimism to bring that new vision to life. The efforts of one organization in one neighborhood might seem rather modest by itself. But when you look the collective work being done by multiple organizations and individuals, the impact is really quite remarkable. Fundamentally, LISC is about supporting and energizing the momentum that is emerging from the grassroots of our neighborhoods. I found that work to be challenging, but also very rewarding. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have helped advance Milwaukee’s forward momentum as a vibrant, diverse, urban center with a promising future.”
What is the most significant challenge LISC Milwaukee has faced during your time with the organization?
“I guess the biggest challenge, organizationally, has been to get people, and especially some of our funders, to understand the role that LISC plays in the community development ‘ecosystem.’ LISC doesn’t work like a typical service-oriented nonprofit organization. LISC is an ‘intermediary,’ which means that we play various roles – advocate, convener, investor, and bridge-builder – in order to make ‘the system’ work better and generate greater impact through collective action.”
What hopes do you have for LISC Milwaukee as a new leader takes over?
“There is a lot of good momentum in the city right now. I would hope that my successor will sustain that momentum and will insure that LISC continues to serve as an advocate and a voice for those segments of our community that are often forgotten and left behind. I also think there are new opportunities for my successor to attract new and enhanced resources from our national office in support of the work here in Milwaukee.”
How optimistic are you for the future of Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods? What needs to happen to maximize their revitalization and ensure their sustainability?
“There is a lot of pain in our community, no question. Despite that, as I said earlier, there is also a growing determination to create a different future through self-help strategies and through collective action. Just as LISC serves as an advocate for ‘neighborhoods,’ there are groups who serve a similar role within neighborhoods. This is where the seeds of change occur. If an individual or a neighborhood is taking action to help themselves, then we, as a community, have to do whatever we can to support and sustain them. I encourage corporations, foundations and individuals to support these neighborhood groups who are on the front line of Milwaukee’s revitalization efforts.”
What have you learned about Milwaukee during your leadership in the nonprofit sector?
“In my position at LISC, and previously at the City of Milwaukee, I’ve had the good fortune to interact with people from very diverse backgrounds – city dwellers and suburbanites, bankers and neighborhood activists, Republicans and Democrats, corporate leaders and residents of some of our poorest neighborhoods – and what I have found is that, when you cut to the bottom line, we all want the same things for ourselves and our families – we want to live in a neighborhood that are safe, attractive and nurturing. The only way for us to accomplish this in Milwaukee is for people from different segments of the community to come together around a shared vision of what our community can become and then support each other in making that vision a reality. Milwaukee, being a big ‘small town,’ is in a better position than most to pull this off because the ‘degrees of separation’ between the ‘big shots’ and the ‘little people’ is not that great. That is why I think the MANDI program has been so effective. It is a community celebration that brings together people from all walks of life. It is a celebration of our shared dreams for our city.”
What kind of support does the region’s nonprofit community need from the business community in order to deliver on goals and missions?
“It seems to me that we need to create opportunities (i.e. ‘neutral ground’) for the nonprofit sector, government sector, the business community and the philanthropic community to work together to address our community’s more pressing and complex problems. Each of those sectors are driven by different incentives and organizational practices, but they each bring unique resources, knowledge and experience to the collective effort.”
What is next for you? Will you remain involved with LISC Milwaukee in any capacity?
“I want to keep myself open to whatever opportunities that might come my way. I will continue to serve on board of directors for the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago and for the Near West Side Partners. This summer, my wife and I will have three young women from Lithuania living with us. Other than that, I intend to take some time off to enjoy the summer and to follow up on some volunteer commitments that I’ve made.”