“I’m so grateful for this opportunity to support our mission and help to lead our team towards our vision for Madison,” says Megan Diaz-Ricks, the new director of economic development at Common Wealth Development. “I think what I like most about this role is that it is something new all the time.”
Founded in 1979, Common Wealth Development supports and preserves the vitality of neighborhoods in the Madison Metropolitan area. Their projects improve the housing and business climate of Madison neighborhoods and initiate important community development projects. Earlier this month, they announced that Diaz-Ricks would be their new director of economic development.
“Commonwealth’s history is so rich and interesting in that a small group of folks came together and really revitalized this area,” Diaz-Ricks tells Madison365 in an interview at Common Wealth Development’s offices on Williams Street on Madison’s near east side. “My hopes with this new position is to really be able to connect and synergize the work of all three of these programs that are under my umbrella of work – adult workforce development, youth workforce development, and small businesses.
“Being able to connect them together through creating jobs through our incubators and helping adults who have high barriers get and obtain jobs and really growing our small businesses out of incubators with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship and job creation… that’s something I really want to do,” she adds.
“I want to get more folks of color in our incubators,” Diaz-Ricks continues. “Women-owned and folks of color are my goals for the business incubator and then being able to connect all of our programs – that’s a huge goal I have.”
In her new role, Diaz-Ricks will oversee the entire umbrella of economic development work, including the general vision, program development and administrative and personnel oversight of Common Wealth’s Youth and Adult Workforce Development Programs. Common Wealth Development has been supporting area teens with training and enriching first job experiences since 1991.
She will also oversee the work of Common Wealth’s business incubators at Main Street Industries and Madison Enterprise Center as well as Common Wealth’s commercial development projects and portfolio. Main Street Industries is located in an old 50,000-square-foot Greyhound Bus terminal and was renovated in 1996. Madison Enterprise Center is a 1st stage business incubation initiative of Common Wealth Development on Madison’s near east side that offers office and light industrial business incubation spaces, serving start-up and expanding small businesses.
“We’re helping youth, we’re helping adults, and we’re helping small business. Small businesses are people’s lives. I see my own parents in that and they own a restaurant and they put their life into every day,” Diaz-Ricks says. “So we’re working with small business owners who are dedicating their lives to making not only their own lives better, but with so many of our tenants committed to social entrepreneurship, they are making the community and society better, as well.”
Diaz-Ricks is a Madison native who grew up on the city’s north side.
“My parents have been small business owners since I was very young. My grandparents owned the first Mexican restaurant in Whitewater, Wisconsin. They were Chicano migrant farmworkers and they had a really rich history in Whitewater. My grandmother did activism here in the ‘60s and she was able to help pass some bills that protected farmworkers in Wisconsin,” she says. “I come from a lineage of activists. So being able to come into this new role helps me to be able to do that in a different way than they did.”
Diaz-Ricks graduated from Madison LaFollette High School and earned her bachelor’s of arts in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She will be completing her master of social work program at UW-Madison this spring, with an emphasis on health and economic equity in Madison. She is also a graduate of the New Leaders Council, a progressive training institute, and a hub for progressive millennial thought leadership.
Diaz-Ricks was previously working on that southwest side of Madison in the areas of adult workforce development and housing stabilization serving as a Coordination of Care Specialist for Common Wealth.
“I really enjoyed doing that direct-service work. I worked with a lot of people who are the periphery – we’ve pushed a lot of low-income and people of color to the periphery of Madison. Ths southwest, Raymond Rd. corridor/Meadowood I knew was an area that had a lot of need and I knew I wanted to work in that area,” Diaz-Ricks says.
“I saw a lot of opportunities there and I knew that this role would kind of get me to where my vision of Madison is,” she continues. “I really wanted to move that vision forward in having healthy, equitable access to housing and being able to connect our adults who are returning to the workforce or transitioning into robust career opportunities that pay a living wage.”
Since 1999, Common Wealth has purchased, rehabbed and re-sold 34 properties to first-time lower-income home buyers. Most of these homes have been two-unit properties, though some were single-family homes. In addition to Common Wealth’s goal of providing affordable homeownership opportunities, staff also provides one-on-one homeownership counseling.
“What I like most is that I have agency to make changes and even us just changing some internal practices can really make such a difference,” she says. “We’re looking at changing our screening criteria for tenants who may have high barriers or some spotty history in housing. We will be, through a referral process, hopefully getting them into our housing and be able to work with organizations who are working with families experiencing homelessness to get into our housing.
“I pride myself in working with an organization that tries to be very progressive in its housing practices because we know that it’s a huge problem here,” she adds. “So, I’d like to make a change just within this role that will be a tangible change that we can actually see. It’s going to be a slow process, but I’m so happy to be here doing this work every day. “
Diaz-Ricks officially starts her new role on July 1.
“It’s a unique role with a lot of responsibility. I know that my life experience lends well to this position,” she says.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity. We have such a unique organization in that we have youth programming, we have adult programming and we have adult workforce development as well as business incubators and affordable housing,” she adds. “We’ve really cultivated such a great community here on the east side and we are expanding to the southwest side.”