by Peggy Schulz

Jan Christensen MANDI Award Nominee
Jan Christensen MANDI Award Nominee

Community development has been getting more positive attention in Milwaukee over the last few years, according to Leo Ries, executive director of LISC Milwaukee. Ries made his remarks while introducing the finalists for the 2014 MANDI awards.

But Jan Christensen, who was named a finalist for the Northern Trust Navigator Award, has been a committed community builder in Riverwest for more than a decade. The Northern Trust Navigator Award recognizes an individual for leadership and collaboration, building healthier neighborhoods.

“I thought I was getting pretty cynical and jaded, but I found myself ridiculously delighted to be named a finalist,” Christensen said. “It has really buoyed my spirits in a way I had forgotten could happen.”

The 16 MANDI finalists, in five award categories, were announced December 11. The winners will be named at a gala event April 9, 2014 at the Pfister Hotel. Another finalist with Riverwest connections is the Urban Ecology Center, in the Brewers Community Foundation Public Space Award category, for its establishment of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum.

MANDI stands for Milwaukee Awards for Neighborhood Development Initiative. The awards are sponsored by U.S. Bank, in partnership with LISC Milwaukee, the local office of a nationwide effort to transform distressed urban neighborhoods into communities of choice and opportunity.

MANDI Marks Career Change

Christensen says her designation as a MANDI finalist is very meaningful for her.

“It’s an affirmation of what I’m doing, and I think it might actually open some doors for me because my career as an organizer is changing,” Christensen said. “This event marks that change, and may help me get some ideas out there and be helpful in the next things I hope to do,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Since 2001, Christensen has been the community organizer in Riverwest for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. Her work has been paid for by Community Development Block Grant funding provided by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. When the YMCA decided not to write for the CDBG grant for 2014, Riverworks Development Corporation wrote the grant and received the funding.

Christensen explained that she will be doing pretty much the same job for the coming year, but will be working with a different organization.

“I will certainly miss all my friends at the YMCA,” she said. “I’m excited about working with Riverworks, though. An organizer’s work is often colored by the non-profit that administers the funds. I think the emphasis Riverworks places on economic development will open some new doors for the neighborhood.”

Christensen hopes to connect Riverworks’ expertise with the new business organization that is just getting started in the neighborhood, and with new cooperative ventures that are springing up as well.

Farmer Socialist Background

Christensen credits her father, Carrol Christensen, for much of her approach to what it means to be a contributing member of a community.

“My dad was a socialist farmer; he worked for the local farmers co-operative,” Christensen said. She grew up on the family potato farm in Waupaca. “All he ever wanted to do was be a farmer, all his brothers were farmers,” she said. “He had a chance to be promoted to upper management in the co-op, but he turned it down.”

Christensen notes that her sense of neighborhood and community wasn’t developed much in Waupaca, however.

“Our family didn’t experience a strong sense of community there,” Christensen said. “We were the only Democrats in town.” During the 1960s, her dad was very strongly anti-war. “He supported my tendency towards altruism and social responsibility, although he did kind of hope I’d make some money at some point.”

Christensen’s father dropped out of high school during the Depression, rode the rails and worked in the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Christensen’s path through life took her back to the family potato farm in the latter part of the 1970’s into the early 1980’s.

“Ronald Reagan happened then,” Christensen said, and the farm went bankrupt. “Many of the small farmers, especially the younger farmers, a lot of them were going bankrupt,” she said. That farm is now a golf course.

Christensen spent many years living in and contributing to the development of “intentional communities,” including seven years at High Wind in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and some time at Dreamtime Village in the Kickapoo Valley. She also lived for a few years in Eugene, Oregon, in a neighborhood similar to Riverwest. While there, she had the unfortunate luck to be tear-gassed while participating in a march in preparation for the World Trade Conference that was coming to Seattle in late 1999.

Christensen earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School. She had planned to go into community ministry, but didn’t find any formalized opportunities for that path. She returned to the Midwest after Harvard, to the Dreamtime Village community, and then helped organize another intentional community based on the healing arts with a partner, David Schemberger, before she headed out with some of those community members to the west coast.

Throughout her lifetime, which began rather humbly on that potato farm in Waupaca, Christensen has maintained an altruistic, positive approach to both her paying work and her mostly unpaid passions.

Working Herself Out of a Job

“The goal of a good community organizer is to empower the people who she’s working with to become their own organizers as soon as possible, to give them the tools they need to be citizens,” Christensen said. Building off of a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson, Christensen opines that democracy demands an educated – and involved – citizenry.

“The concept of citizenship is an idea I’ve seen reawakened within the last five or six years,” Christensen said. “I think Barack Obama has really understood that concept of organizing and empowering the citizenry, and has done a lot to further it in quiet ways that many people might not notice.”

Christensen notes that when she started working as a community organizer around the turn of the century, she felt she could get to know all the organizers in Milwaukee.

“But now, there’s a whole crop of young organizers who have started working in various areas over time,” Christensen said. “Union organizers, organizers for minimum wage, fair employment practices, fair housing, the whole Occupy movement, I think, grew out of that,” she said. “There’s an entire generation with a really high percentage of motivated, organizer type people who are making real strides toward taking our democracy back.”

The programs and projects Christensen has worked on touch virtually all aspects of daily life in an urban neighborhood.

Christensen helped establish the Riverwest Food Co-op and Café in 2002. The co-op has continued to grow, reaching $1 million in sales in 2012. She also helped establish the Riverwest Neighborhood Association in 2001. She has served as a technical support person to the RNA during all of the years she has worked as a community organizer with the YMCA.

The Community Garden at Kilbourn Park is perhaps Christensen’s most visible achievement. She created the 133-bed garden in 2009 and continues to help manage it, including oversight of the internship program at the garden in 2010 and 2011.

Together with the YMCA and the Marquette University Community Transformation Project, Christensen established and managed the Abundant Riverwest project in 2012. That project inventoried the gifts, skills and passions of individual residents and the assets of the Riverwest neighborhood as a whole, and began a process of connecting individuals with resources to meet the changing needs of the neighborhood.

The first Re-Imagine Riverwest conference was held on November 29, 2012. It invited neighborhood participants to identify new projects to help make Riverwest a more sustainable neighborhood. Christensen was the driving force behind this effort, which generated 194 new ideas in six areas, including projects that are already in the works, such as Solar Riverwest.

“I’m kind of amazed at how quickly change can come about when motivated citizens connect with their passions,” she said. “I hope to continue working this process during the next year.”

Currently, Christensen is editor-in-chief of the Riverwest Currents. She has served in that capacity since 2005. Writing and editing have been part of Christensen’s life since she was a young woman.

“I wanted to be a minister, initially, but writing lured me away,” she said.

When we think of a navigator, we most often picture someone sitting at a map, or these days, a computer, identifying a path to take. Jan Christensen has, throughout her varied and constructive lifetime, both drawn her own, unique path, and outlined ways for others to move forward and improve their lives.