Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Andi Elliott is CEO of Community Advocates, a nonprofit that has served low-income Milwaukeeans for 40 years. One of the only agencies in Wisconsin that accepts walk-in clients, Community Advocates assists clients with housing, helps families escape domestic violence and fosters community collaborations. In this interview, Elliott discusses being a leader in service of both clients and the staff.
Q: How do you keep Community Advocates’ mission of human dignity in mind as CEO?
A: The organization was founded by three volunteers to make sure that individuals and families in Milwaukee have access to their basic needs, and that they are served with dignity and respect. I’m really proud to say that mission remains very strong. For me personally, it’s staying connected with the people that we’re serving as well as the employees that are doing really critical work in our community.
Q: How did you get to where you are now?
A: My career started at Community Advocates. I was a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) field placement student in the social work program. I started doing housing work, and once my field placement ended I was hired on as a housing advocate. From there, I transferred to the transitional housing program, working with families that were homeless. Then I started doing development work and eventually I was promoted to the associate director. I was in charge of budgets, administration and program development. In 2014, I was promoted to CEO.
Q: Who or what has inspired you along the way?
A: One of my mentors was the founder of Community Advocates: Ramon Wagner. He was not a flashy person, and his commitment was to service. He made sure that those we serve as well as our employees were treated respectfully. Remembering that (staff members) are human and keeping a supportive work environment for them is key to enabling them to provide the best service they can. That was Ramon’s legacy.
Q: How do you get the best work from your staff?
A: I think the key is open communication. It’s showing that I am personally very committed to the mission and the service that we’re providing, and acknowledging that it’s very critical work. Whether it’s a crisis issue in the program or a crisis in the community, I keep them advised, and stay open and transparent so they know the issues are being addressed.
Q: What is a typical workday for you?
A: There is none. As an administrator, I make sure all of our individual programs are functioning smoothly. These programs include preventing homelessness, promoting treatment for substance abuse, helping families escape domestic violence and providing advocacy. Whether I’m making phone calls to our different facilities like the Milwaukee Women’s Center, or visiting one of our shelters like our Autumn West Safe Haven, there is never a dull day.
Q: What’s the most difficult case you have ever worked on and why?
A: When I first started, I was a housing advocate. I was working with a tenant, and one day the landlord showed up at Community Advocates. It turns out (the landlord) was a very elderly woman with disabilities who could not make the repairs herself. I was able to work with her to find resources to make the repairs. It demonstrated to me that there are always two sides to a story. We’re here not to just work with one side, but with both parties. This case was especially memorable to me because I then continued working with the landlord concerning her disabilities until she passed away.
Q: Do you have any advice to aspiring leaders?
A: For me, it’s about being true to yourself and following your passion. When I first got to Community Advocates, I thought I would just do my field placement and move on to working with teens, because that was my passion at the time. But I found my passion here. It fulfills my need to be of service to others. It’s very consistent with a personal mission that I have. The key to waking up and wanting to go to work every day is doing something you love and feel very passionate about. That’s part of what makes you whole.
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