Martha Collins moved to Milwaukee as a child to escape the negativity consuming her family.
The move, Collins said, saved her life, and she has spent her career trying to give back to the city what it gave to her through community service work.
“When we moved from Chicago, my mother was escaping an abusive relationship. I had siblings joining gangs and getting involved in other things,” Collins said. “I want to make Milwaukee better because Milwaukee made me better.”
As the new executive director of Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, she hopes to give back by empowering the residents and youths she serves.
Neighborhood House, 2819 W. Richardson Place, is a community center that provides several services, including early child care and after-school programs for youths and teens. It also offers adult education for refugees, parenting support and a food pantry.
Friends said the role was made for Collins.
“I know that she is a dynamic leader with a broad reach that she could use as a vehicle to enhance not only the center but the surrounding area,” said David Sinclair, a program coordinator for WestCare Foundation who encouraged Collins to apply for the position.
Sinclair said Collins has the drive to change the world and she acquires any knowledge she may need to address issues head-on.
Glendale Alderwoman Tomika Vukovic, who is a longtime friend of Collins, shares Sinclair’s sentiments.
“When she combines her knowledge with her understanding of the plight in the communities she serves, Martha makes a difference,” said Vukovic. “Her value is evident in how many organizations and people she’s touched already.”
Collins, 42, said she fell in love with community work before she even knew how to define it.
“I was preparing to graduate from Washington High School and major in computer engineering,” she said. “I already had an internship set up with Northwestern Mutual when my mom started having me come in to help her at work because I was good with computers.”
Her mother, Patricia Collins, worked as an office administrator.
“The more time I spent in their office, the more I learned about nonprofits and management leadership,” Martha Collins said.
Collins earned a Bachelor of Science degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University in 2009, a graduate certificate from Marlboro College Center for New Leadership and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Business Administration from Alverno College. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years.
She started in her current job in April after working at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, where she managed a community-based outreach program for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.
Collins believes nonprofit and policy work go hand in hand.
“You can’t do one without the other,” she said. “If we as an agency are fighting hunger and hunger is a systematic issue, we have to directly engage policy to truly address the issue.”
One of her goals in her new role is to create a space to empower those discussions among the youths with whom Neighborhood House works.
“If you think about any major change that has occurred in this country, there are always youth and young adults leading the charges,” she said. “We want to create that pipeline to leadership through our programming.”
In addition, Collins serves as a commissioner with the Equal Rights Commission with the City of Milwaukee to advance accessibility, racial and gender-based equity and inclusion for all residents. And she is on the board of directors of the Nonprofit Academy of Wisconsin, a local group aimed at helping nonprofits perform their missions better. She’s also served on the City of Milwaukee Ethics Board.
Outside of work, Collins spends her time with her two sons, Sean, 21, and Seth, 15.
“My boys are my best friends,” she said. “They keep me young. My relationship with them always aids in the community work I’m doing.”
“Every teacher, every mentor, every co-worker and every childhood friend that I’ve had since coming to Milwaukee has led me to this work,” Collins said. “I just want to be that for someone else.”