WHEDA Aims to Boost Social Equity Across Wisconsin with New Strategic Market, Tribal Liaison

Published by Nick DeCicco on Thursday, November 4, 2021
Journal Cover Thumb November 2021

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) sought to create a new position last year to deepen its relationship with the state’s 72 counties.

The strategic market liaison position would build awareness to identify the root causes of disparities tied to racial inequity and inequality, strengthening WHEDA’s connection across the state to understand its diverse needs, barriers and opportunities to strive for more equitable, affordable and workforce-centered housing.

When filling that role–a rare, if not one-of-a-kind position among state allocating agencies–leaders at WHEDA knew at least one person was especially qualified: Erica Steele. Steele joined the organization after a decade of experience in community nonprofits and workforce development. Ana Simpson, WHEDA’s director of community and economic development, said Steele brought a “proven track record.”

“We saw her work with the Latino community and other multicultural environments in Milwaukee,” said Simpson. “We knew that she would bring that to a statewide level.”

WHEDA works to stimulate Wisconsin’s economy and improve the quality of life for its residents by providing business financing products and affordable housing, using such programs as the low-income housing tax credit.

In July, Steele broadened her responsibilities in serving strategic, diverse markets to add the role of tribal liaison to Wisconsin’s Native American nations. A lot of her work is listening, she said, as part of a team within WHEDA that strives to be its local presence throughout Wisconsin.

“As I dive into my role, I’m meeting with many different stakeholders and really just being a sponge to soak up all the information I can to understand the unique characteristics of different communities, their history, cultural nuances, their needs and perspectives,” Steele said. “Whenever I’m going into a meeting and I’m meeting a new or existing partner, I say, ‘tell me your story. Tell me from your lens what’s been happening in your organization or your region.’”

Building a Foundation

Steele’s absorption of information has been constant throughout her life. As a child, she had “a natural curiosity about people,” she said, learning about her family history, the family histories of her friends and being engaged in her community. When she was in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison–where she was a triple major in international studies, Spanish, and Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian studies–opportunities to travel abroad deepened her knowledge base. Being immersed in new cultures, learning about differing customs, politics and languages heightened her “curiosity in how the intersectionality of these aspects shape our identities and how we as a people balance these dynamics to coexist and thrive,” she said.

In 2010, Steele joined AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program aimed at curbing poverty. Steele described it as similar to a domestic Peace Corps. In her two years there, Steele worked on the south side of Milwaukee, in the heart of the Latino community, as coordinator of the Empowering Latinos program, a mentoring program for Latino adults.

Steele described the deep relationships she built within the community with partners, colleagues, and families as a “transformational experience” that affirmed her passion and commitment to community development. “It shaped my career trajectory,” Steele said.

With AmeriCorps VISTA, Steele learned more about families and their career goals, personal goals and family aspirations. She heightened her understanding of challenges and barriers facing Latino families in the city.

“Although I held the formal role as a teacher, a mentor in that program, it felt like I was learning equally as much from the participants as they were learning from me,” Steele said. “I realized at the core we are all resources to each other. Our stories matter, our experiences matter and sharing our journeys and supporting [and] uplifting one another can make a profound impact.”

From 2011 to 2016, Steele was director of vocational education and training and Latino empowerment for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, taking the educational program she developed with AmeriCorps VISTA along and developing other new workforce development programming. Then, before joining WHEDA, Steele spent four years with Froedtert Health, creating, leading and executing the organization’s first-ever, systemwide workforce development strategy for its 14,000-employee enterprise across multiple regional sites in the Badger State.

In both of these roles, Steele sat at a similar nexus to her current role with WHEDA, working to balance the needs of families and communities with what she was hearing in leadership meetings around strategic priorities and about how to best engage and serve the community.

Building Together

Steele’s role with WHEDA affords her and the organization the opportunity to see how housing and economic development are interconnected in many facets of our lives.

“It’s not just about the financing that WHEDA provides, but also about access to quality education systems, health care, anything that comprises the health of communities,” Steele said. “That holistic approach has been foundational to the work we’re doing right now.”

Steele said that means taking a human-centered approach, meeting with community organizations, community members, leaders of development, people she called the “broad brush of stakeholders,” beyond solely housing and economic development, to better understand what the needs are and how WHEDA best develops collaborative strategies to address them.

“That’s what, for me, is most exciting. It’s really taking a step back to gain insight to take a step forward to shape this work together in a collaborative way,” Steele said. “The first phase of this role has been getting out into the community, talking with different stakeholders to hear their voice and to hear their perspective and then taking that back to organization and co-create what we do next.”

WHEDA strives to use that outreach to build programs from the ground up, bringing in the voices of Wisconsin communities and working from there, rather than dictating an agenda to communities that, no matter how well-intentioned, may not serve their needs.

“My professional work has been centered around building collaborative partnerships to put people first in terms of equity, opportunities for economic mobility and creating pathways to generational wealth,” Steele said. “We’re applying that background to align with WHEDA to inform strategy. Housing is connected to successful community building, but it’s one part of the whole picture of what we’re trying to do.”

A Matter of Trust

Steele said that while sometimes there can be a sense of urgency, building the steps to make changes collaboratively takes trust, which requires transparency, consistency and patience.

“It would be a mistake to walk into something like this and say, ‘great first meeting’ and expect we have a new partner or are ready to initiate a new project,” Steele said. “It’s important to acknowledge that this takes time and showing people the intention and then demonstrating that with actions we execute, not only by myself, but also as an organization.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, WHEDA has undertaken some significant initiatives, including researching and focusing on community development financial institutions within Wisconsin. Another initiative is WHEDA’s Rural Affordable Workforce Housing Initiative, a pilot program in a trio of rural Wisconsin communities. A third initiative focuses on African American and Latino home ownership, trying to dig into the root causes of disparities that exist in state of Wisconsin in those communities as compared to their white counterparts.

In her role as strategic market and tribal liaison, Steele is negotiating the behaviors, customs and expectations of several different communities, an area in which Simpson said Steele excels.

“Our intention was to ensure we are focused, invest in learning and ultimately culturally competent,” Simpson said. “Erica has afforded us the ability to not only focus on geography, but to have a human-centered approach to our outreach. We’re in a better place and we can recalibrate when necessary because we are thoughtfully aligning our focus on communities we know have disparities to our holistic strategies.”

A Passion for People

Steele said collaborating both internally and externally to confront the systemic challenges and barriers that communities of color face throughout Wisconsin is a challenging part of her job, but also the most rewarding.

“I’m proud of be part of such a passionate and mission-driven team,” Steele said. “It’s a team that wants to dive deep and have challenging conversations centered around equity and growth, creating a safe space externally and internally to challenge assumptions and outcomes to serve communities better. I don’t think that is an easy task. We know there are historic and current policies and practices that have resulted in intended and unintended consequences that have been detrimental to communities of color. We have to really be able to look at ourselves first. Not point fingers and say, ‘oh, if that were different or if this was changed.’ We have to point the finger internally and ask, ‘How do we continue to grow and do better?’ Asking those kinds of questions, challenging ourselves, that’s the real work. That’s what gets me up every morning, inspired to work with a group of people who share that same vision, passion and determination.”