October 10, 2019
By Alison Dirr and Marisa Peryer
Growing up in the Sherman Park neighborhood, the families on Katie Sanders’ block kept in close contact with each other.
Her mom was the block captain for a time. Relationships among neighbors flourished and problems were solved. Sanders felt a sense of community.
But years later, when she and her husband, Beau, bought their first house in Milwaukee in 2006, the neighborhood had no such group.
Safe & Sound Executive Director Katie Sanders on Sept. 4 at the organization’s “A Night to Unite: The Power of Community” event at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Sanders worked with police to start a block club. The effort grew into a neighborhood organization that today is the Bluemound Heights Neighborhood Association.
Along the way, the group tackled the kinds of problems that can tear a less cohesive neighborhood apart. After new residents moved into a formerly vacant house next door, Sanders said, drugs and domestic violence became an issue. A couple of blocks away, a four-unit apartment building housed significant drug dealing.
In both cases, the group worked with a community prosecution unit coordinator from Safe & Sound to address the situations. Sanders said it still took a long time to resolve the problems, and she had to learn a lot about the different processes involved. But she thinks Safe & Sound probably expedited the process for the already active group of residents, helping to figure out next steps.
She and her husband, with their three sons, now live in a different Milwaukee neighborhood, but the relationships built in Bluemound Heights endure. And the experience Sanders gained was a fitting foundation for the work she does today.
Safe & Sound Executive Director Katie Sanders, left, talks with John Kordsmeier on Sept. 4 at the organization’s “A Night to Unite: The Power of Community” event at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Sanders has been executive director of Safe & Sound since 2014. The organization’s mission is to build safe, empowered neighborhoods by bringing together residents, youth, police and community resources. With strong people skills and smart fundraising, Sanders has expanded its profile and funding sources.
For a city like Milwaukee, with its distinct neighborhood feel, helping people wade through bureaucratic systems can have a profound effect, she said. “There needs to be an organization like Safe & Sound to navigate and remove barriers for residents,” she said.
Her staff is full of “tremendous innovators” and Sanders has helped them deliver their best work to the city, said JoAnne Anton, director of charitable giving for Herb Kohl Philanthropies.
Her style of leadership melds empowerment and accountability, Anton said.
Changing the narrative
On an evening in early September, photographers snapped photos as a crowd mingled in the atrium of the Italian Community Center. Nearly 500 people gathered for a Safe & Sound’s “A Night to Unite.” The theme this year: “The Power of Community.”
Among those in attendance: John Kordsmeier, who agreed to join the Safe & Sound board because he so believed in Sanders’ leadership. For him, the transition of this annual event from morning to evening spoke to Sanders’ ability to build the organization.
“I think just the fact that she went from having a breakfast event to this gala, she understood the value of development and getting the story out about Safe & Sound so that they would invest,” he said.
“They” are the businesses and philanthropies that support the organization. The event brought in more than $240,000 and helped boost Safe & Sound’s profile, which can translate into more benefits down the road.
“Financial support is one thing, but we’re also looking for people to simply believe in the work that we’re doing and help us change the narrative around Milwaukee and the neighborhoods that we’re serving,” Sanders said.
There has been significant disinvestment over many years in some neighborhoods, she said. Investing in those neighborhoods and their people is something supporters agree on. Businesses are interested in recruiting talent and having a thriving community here for employees and customers.
“Milwaukee doesn’t thrive if parts of our city are unsafe,” she said.
Fundraising experience a major asset
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Robert M. La Follette
School of Public Affairs in 2005, Sanders didn’t find a huge market for policy analysts in Milwaukee. She found work in the nonprofit sector, in which she had worked and volunteered throughout college.
Sanders became the director of development at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, then moved to Marquette University in 2010 to become the director of corporate and foundation relations.
“It was a fantastic path for me because one thing in leading an organization that you have to know how to do is fundraise,” she said. “So in those fundraising positions, I was able to home in on those skills, and that has really helped transform Safe & Sound’s financial model, which used to be almost 100% dependent on government sources.”
(Today, it’s about 60% federally funded and 40% privately funded and that’s with a bigger budget over time, she said.)
Safe & Sound Executive Director Katie Sanders, left, talks with Schinika Fitch, right, on Sept. 4 at the organization’s “A Night to Unite: The Power of Community” event at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Sanders joined Safe & Sound in May 2013 as development and marketing director. By December, the organization was looking for a new executive director, and she stepped into an interim role. Four months later, and just 11 months after she made the move from Marquette, “interim” was removed.
Sanders was charged with implementing a strategic plan that shifted and sharpened the focus of Safe & Sound’s efforts. She also needed to improve the organization’s financial picture. Today, the organization has revenue of a little more than $2 million.
Through the transition, Sanders provided stability and a high level of initiative, said Anton, from Herb Kohl Philanthropies.
“I think one of the most remarkable things about Katie at that time, but consistently since that time, is how she deals with people,” Anton said. “She listens, she assesses, she listens more.”
Accountability plays key role
Drawing on her education at La Follette, Sanders made tracking progress the year-round norm, not just something done for fundraisers or annual reports.
Anton said that allows the organization to provide direction to staff and community partners but also to think about areas that need to be retooled.
Safe & Sound worked with La Follette students and a team from the Medical College of Wisconsin to evaluate its progress. The evaluation, which studied eight neighborhoods Safe & Sound operates in, was released in 2017. It found that six of those neighborhoods saw improvement in collective efficacy, or neighbors knowing each other and being willing to act if something is wrong. The research found the strongest tie between the number of block club meetings and improvements in collective efficacy.
As a funder, it’s always important to see that progress is being measured effectively and that recipients can explain the difference they’re making as a result of the money that’s being provided, Kordsmeier said.
And, said Erin Frederick, Zilber Family Foundation program director, funders see that Sanders is not only invested in the work but also in her team.
“To me that speaks to just her … ability to connect with people, and I think she really cares about people,” Frederick said.
‘Live and breathe it’
Today, Safe & Sound organizers work in 10 of the city’s neighborhoods, empowering residents to take an active role block by block. That can mean anything from picking up trash to installing flower beds to helping bring issues to the police.
It can take a lot of work to get to that point.
“While you don’t have to be best friends with everyone around you, you should know who is who and what’s unusual and what’s not and be willing to step in if you see something that isn’t right,” Sanders said. “For a lot of reasons, that social structure has broken down in a lot of our neighborhoods.”
Milwaukee Police Capt. Jeffrey Norman first started working with Safe & Sound when he was assigned to District 5 around 2015. He said they had a good relationship and worked on neighborhood building and community engagement — park cleanups, Juneteenth celebrations, National Nights Out.
Safe & Sound’s effectiveness stems from its people, many who have longstanding relationships with the neighborhoods they work in, he said.
“Fighting for your community is not a nine-to-five job … you have to live and breathe it,” he said. Safe & Sound understands that, he added.
Now the District 3 captain, Norman said he appreciated that Sanders let him be involved in choosing the team, including being part of the interview process for the neighborhood safety coordinator for his district.
Safe & Sound acts as a voice and sometimes an intermediary to bring concerns and issues forward so they can be addressed, Norman said. For police, understanding where the issues lie helps them focus resources. And, he said, although he’s working to change the narrative around police, sometimes it takes someone who isn’t wearing a uniform to build that trust.
“Safe & Sound helps empower those neighbors to have that voice and also to have the courage,” he said. “It’s not easy to essentially report negative behavior in your neighborhood. You live there.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight
In Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, resident Josephine Key said doing any projects would have been difficult even two years ago. But after teaming up with Safe & Sound, Key said, she’s been able to address issues on her block more effectively.
Key, who has been honored by Safe & Sound for her leadership along with her son, James, said she is pleased with how the organization operates under Sanders’ leadership.
“I’ll tell you this: I do like her,” Keys said. “I do like her a lot.”
Some residents are less enthusiastic about Safe & Sound — at least initially.
The work, Sanders said, takes time.
“It’s not overnight that change happens,” she said. “We’re battling … 50 years of disinvestment in central city Milwaukee and residents have not been heard by the elected officials and the institutions that are there to support them, and so there is a lack of trust.”
Sanders said first interactions with residents can elicit comments such as: “What are you doing here?” “Why are you on my block?” But when organizers keep coming back — offering to pick up litter or chat with residents on their porches — relationships develop and blocks begin to make tangible changes.
For Sanders, seeing the small things add up — residents knowing who to call if a neighborhood issue crops up or taking the lead on block meetings — makes the work worthwhile.
Key used to take a broom and clean litter off her block’s street — work that now is all but unnecessary because of efforts to make people more mindful about trash.
“What I like now is (that there is) very little litter on the street. … I thank God there is as little as it is because it used to be horrendous,” she said.
To Sanders, the small accomplishments are worth celebrating. When young people tell organizers they don’t take drugs or carry a gun because of Safe & Sound programming, Sanders takes those as wins.
“We celebrate those small wins when we can, and then we look at how are we changing neighborhoods overall.”