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Reflecting on 20 Years

Written by Beth Heller
    Monday, 07 May 2018
Reflecting on 20 Years

Much has changed over the past 20 years. One thing that hasn’t is the dedication of two key people – Executive Director, Ken Leinbach and Board Director, Dennis Grzezinski. They, and many others, worked together to help establish the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) as the award winning educational and environmental model it is today. On the eve of their 20th anniversary with UEC, I thought I’d ask what brought them here and what changes they have seen as a result of their work. Here’s what they said.

While Ken grew up on his parent’s camp in Michigan surrounded by nature, it wasn’t until he was 16 years old working with the Student Conservation Association that he developed a critical awareness of his own commitment to nature. He went on to become a science teacher, opening an environmental education center in Virginia and eventually landing here.

Dennis’s commitment formed as a convergence of circumstances. Returning home from law school, he found the meadows, streams and woodlands of his childhood stomping grounds destroyed and replaced by a subdivision, shopping mall and roadway. During the summer he visited a friend who “dragged him along” on a backpacking trip to Sun Valley. These two experiences shaped a life long love of nature and a commitment to environmental preservation. They also helped him choose environmental law for his practice. As he said, “Representing workers whose minds and bodies had been terribly damaged by exposure to pesticides in their work connected me to one aspect of environmental law. My commitment to environmental protection and environmental justice has simply grown over time.”

While these were different paths to the UEC, their lives became intertwined in friendship and hard work. And Milwaukee has changed.

KenAndDennis2018

Board Director, Dennis Grzezinski (left) and Executive Director, Ken Leinbach (right) 

“Outdoor recreation has increased visibly” said Ken, “the bike path is busy and overall there are more people outside. ‘Sustainability’ is now much better understood, and ‘green’ describes more than a color.”

Dennis added, “Milwaukee now takes for granted clean air and clean water. We don’t have air quality alerts anymore.”

The progress is encouraging. Yet there is still so much more work to do. In describing their aspirations for the Center over the next 20 years, both Ken and Dennis share a sense of urgency in scaling up our impacts.

“When I step outside of our [local] bubble, I just don’t see the kind of shift we need happening fast enough. There is a lot more to be done,” said Ken.

In facing these big challenges, what keeps them going? Ken notes, “the abundance of talent, skills and creativity in the city — I love seeing creative projects emerging from unexpected places.” And Dennis enjoys “the level of fun [and] playfulness that is present at each of the Centers and throughout the programs and activities — it is hard to find a person who isn’t smiling at the UEC.”

Happy 20 year anniversary, Ken and Dennis!

Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.

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