Workforce Development Meets Land Conservation: How Social Impact Continues to Build with Ilyssa Manspeizer of Landforce - Ep 36

This episode of the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast aired on Tuesday, January 23rd. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

0:00:00.0 Lauren: Ilyssa Manspeizer, PhD is an anthropologist with over 30 years of experience creating opportunities for people and planet to thrive together. Throughout her time as a conservationist, Ilyssa had a recurrent question about how people and conservation could go hand in hand. This question led her to form Landforce in November, 2015, which is an organization that has hired more than 140 people to learn environmental stewardship skills, be employed in transitional jobs to steward our land and enter family sustaining jobs from a place of dignity and strength. As the founding executive Director of Landforce, Ilyssa leads an organization where traditional barriers to employment do not exist. And returning citizens, people with substance use disorders, mental health diagnoses, or those trapped in cycles of generational poverty, have the opportunity to grow and thrive while ensuring that our environment can do the same. Thanks for listening to the Social Enterprise Alliance podcast. Please help me welcome Ilyssa.

0:01:28.7 Lauren: Hi, Ilyssa. We're so happy to have you on the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast today.

0:01:32.1 Ilyssa: Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here and share all sorts of Landforce things with you.

0:01:38.3 Lauren: Just to kind of kick things off, we'd love to hear a little bit more about your story and how you came up with the idea for Landforce in the first place, specifically the combination of conservation and workforce development.

0:01:54.0 Ilyssa: So, my story is long, I guess. [laughter] I started out my professional life working in nature conservation, helping organize the work of several different international organizations, specifically with the African elephants, from there I moved to working in Ethiopia, helping set up an elephant conservation and monitoring program there. But doing that work really showed me that if we are going to succeed in conserving the resources and the environment and the nature that we have, we need to learn how to work with people as well. So from there I went back to grad school and I got my PhD in anthropology because anthropologists culture, people. While working on my PhD, I did my field research in Zambia with a community-based conservation program. And that program basically was hiring former illegal hunters from rural areas and assisting them to turn into game guards. So they were paying them, providing income so that they were no longer forced to hunt the wildlife illegally.

0:03:18.2 Ilyssa: And it was the beginning for me of this idea that work, income and conservation and people's futures can be tied together really, really clearly and closely. When I finished the dissertation and was beginning to look for work, our family relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was kind of a surprise, but if you've ever been to Pittsburgh, you know that the hills, the valleys, the rivers, the bridges all make this a really beautiful area. There is a lot of conservation work being done in the city, and I had the good fortune to start working to build Pittsburgh's newest regional park, Emerald View Park, which is about 260 acres up in one of the neighborhoods called Mount Washington. And it overlooks the city. If you've ever seen an image of a Steeler's game and you see the city, the stadium, and the city, it's probably projected from Mount Washington and probably projected from very close to the park.

0:04:24.9 Ilyssa: But this was Hillside area. This was land that had been denuded and mined and dumped on. And we created from the management plan, we created a 20 mile trail plan. And it occurred to me at that time, I had the opportunity to visit the Allegheny County Jail at the same time. And it occurred to me that we as a society are sometimes quite literally throwing people away and throwing away their talents and their skills and their hopes and their dreams. And I knew that from within my position at that time, there was only so much I could do, but what we did do was create crews from returning citizens. So people who had been involved in the justice system we hired to actually build those 20 miles of trails. And from there, the work that we were doing was recognized by several of our partners who began asking, how can you do that with us? How can we do it with you? How can I create something similar here? And from that moment when we started working with a group of partners to figure out how we took our model and made it even better we did some national benchmarking. We spoke to other organizations, and we created Landforce in November, 2015.

0:05:47.0 David: That's so cool. Yeah. All of our stories have this long beginning, but where they lead is just such a beautiful thing. On a personal level, I can, I'm in Cincinnati, so I see the Pittsburgh skyline often just because our sports team play each other often. Right. But and you guys usually beat us up pretty good, but the [chuckle], but there is that like Rivertown, like there's a lot of similarities, I think, to our two cities. So there's that. But one of the things that just I love so much about this story is either one of the two things that you're doing would be a social enterprise. And you really have found this beautiful marriage between two significant needs and brought life to both that are very complimentary. I just love that story so much. And I think that one of the things that we all learned together as social enterprises is just all of the stakeholders. Like, I think as we are all imagining what a brand new economy looks like, a brand new version of, or an evolution of what capitalism looks like, it's continuing to ask the question of who are the stakeholders? Who are the stakeholders? And how many of them can we have positive influence and impact with?

0:06:58.6 David: And I mean, I think my most favorite part about your story is you're really seeing the human of other people that are often discarded, like that's maybe the most impactful part of the story.

0:07:13.1 Ilyssa: I agree. I think what we do at Landforce, we do a lot of things really well, but one of the things we do really well is understand that everybody has a history and we're all proud of some of the things we did, and we're all not proud of some of the things we did. And that doesn't change the fact that we are all bringing value with us every day. We're bringing our experiences, we're bringing our knowledge, we're bringing our histories, and whatever we have done or have been able to do or not do in our past helps us every day that we take a step and we honor the people that come through our doors because they bring a lot of wisdom with them. And they bring a lot of wisdom to us, and we all learn a lot from each other every day.

0:08:03.8 David: Yeah. Yeah. That's amazing. Well, let me kind of follow up with that. So you're an organization that serves then several populations with barriers to employment. What does that support system look like? What kind of services or do you have services and programs that you offer to not only get them kind of up and off their feet, but it seems like you're looking at that person, that workforce as a complete human, which includes many other things other than just the career and financial services?

0:08:37.3 Ilyssa: So we talk about the work we do as having, as Landforce itself having two pillars, and one is the environmental stewardship work that we do, and the other is the workforce development or the human side. So our team currently consists of our director of workforce development and our work readiness manager. And together we have come up with a very intensive training which covers both "hard and soft skills." The soft skills will be anywhere from financial literacy to address that is appropriate for work depending on the work how to write cover emails, how to apply for a job, and working with resumes, a lot of things that other organizations like us do. We also provide a certification in restorative practices. We do training in mental health and understanding mental health. We provide one-on-one career coaching throughout the time that people are with us so that they can identify what their goals are, what their own personal goals are, what the obstacles are for those goals and then come up with a plan together for which our career coach can hold them accountable while they're with us, until they reach those goals and go off into other employment.

0:10:06.2 Ilyssa: So the whole time people are here, they are supported in their transitions. There are of course the supports and assistance with transportation and or connecting people to therapeutic resources or childcare resources. We buy the boots, we give people the work shirts, all the tools are provided, but our staff throughout, whether it's on the environmental side or on the workforce side, are all trained and ready and capable to support people as they transition to the next point in their lives.

0:10:45.3 Lauren: Yeah, that's really incredible. It's awesome to hear about just all the different wraparound services and resources that you offer to your employees. So is Landforce a short-term work opportunity, or is it something where people come in and they get the skills and the training that kind of can get back on their feet a little bit and then after some time in the program you launch them into a more long-term employment opportunity or a career path?

0:11:15.0 Ilyssa: Yeah, that is our goal, that people use Landforce as an opportunity to really stabilize their lives so they can be successful in their next steps, whether it's going for more training or going to school or going directly into unsupported employment. Our goal is that everybody is able to live a full life, whatever that means, for them and their families and provide for their kids and their loved ones also.

0:11:49.7 Lauren: Awesome. Yeah, that's really incredible. So with all of the people that you see coming in and out of Landforce, do you have any favorite success stories?

0:12:01.9 Ilyssa: There are so many.

0:12:03.8 Ilyssa: I think what I want to talk about as far as success stories go is that it's not always what you think. It's not. Like I can tell you about the guy who is now an assistant director in his position, right. In his organization, his company, and the fact that I got to write the reference for him and how honored that I was. But I think for me, like the deepest success stories are people who may not have even finished the program, who may have left early for whatever reason, but we were able to engage them in a way that their futures are better than the trajectory they were on, either because we helped connect them to resources or they saw that they actually needed the resources. So success comes in really funny forms, like the most meaningful successes come in really interesting and unexpected ways sometimes.

0:13:06.4 David: Yeah. It's just so fascinating. Like I am really just sitting here in appreciation of how much you're seeing all people for this equal value of a gift that they have to offer to the world. You're like, you're just helping them unwrap it or something. And I'm trying to think of what, but just that human perspective I think is just so valuable and to be human is to love and to be loved, to know and be known. And through work you're kind of providing that and maybe to some people that haven't had as much of those experiences in their lives.

0:13:42.9 Ilyssa: Yeah. And it's funny that you say that because the metaphor we use, and it's not necessarily the best metaphor, but the metaphor we talk about is like, we are laying all the tools on the table and they're gonna choose which ones make sense for them to pick up right then, they can always come back and get another tool. They can go and use that tool to make something else. But it's, we are not fixing someone, we're not making them better. We're just providing them the opportunity to do what they want to do and what's meaningful for them in a way that builds their capacity and their hope for the future. Because oftentimes they haven't had this opportunity. And we provide the skills, we provide everything else, we provide the nurturing environment. The most meaningful moments often come in the rare moments these days, it seems. When I get to work alongside a crew when we're outdoors and just working together and chatting with them and seeing where they're going.

0:14:48.9 Ilyssa: And inevitably, we do lots of different kinds of environmental work, but we still do trail construction. Inevitably, every year somebody will say to me, I hate building trails. It's really hard work, but I love turning around and seeing what I've done.

0:15:07.3 David: Oh, wow.

0:15:08.5 Ilyssa: And as soon as they say that, that's like, that's the moment, they've got it. They understand that what they're doing in life, it might be really hard and you might not see all of the results immediately, but at some point you turn around and you are not where you were before. You are in a new place, hopefully a better place, and you've done something really special and important behind you.

0:15:36.0 David: Is there… Kind of related to that, is there, like it feels like there's this in the work that you're doing with people and then with the land, feels like there's this potential of awakening or a spirituality around, like hands on the dirt, like you're touching the earth. Have you had those kinds of experiences in addition to what you just said too?

0:16:05.4 Ilyssa: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we know that even in the most passive way, just by doing the work outside, by being in the woods in Pittsburgh or getting your hands dirty or planting a tree or pruning a tree or like, the proximity to nature is so healing is so restorative. There is more than enough science to prove that. And for many people who come through our doors, who have had a lot of experience with trauma, just in a really passive way, that helps. But then when people start recognizing it and realizing it and talking about like, Oh, I haven't been in the woods since I was a kid and I actually really love it". One of my other favorite quotes ever was a crew member who said, "I love coming to work. The birds are always singing", and if you dig down a little bit, it's just like this beautiful idea that things at home may not have been great, right? He or she may have had a difficult home life, but coming into work was a safe space. It was a place where instead of having to hear negativity or like the hate from the outside world or whatever it was, you just get to hear the birds sing and get to center yourself a little bit. So it's both an active thing and a passive thing, I'd say.

0:17:31.4 David: I mean, I'm just like inside. [chuckle] So just, I love this. I love this.

0:17:39.4 Lauren: Yeah. That's really incredible. I think it's cool to see the impact that you're having in so many different areas. Just combining the workforce development with the conservation side and how just in your work one thing just leads to another and impact creates more impact, creates more impact and it just has this really beautiful building effect. So with all of the experience that you've had now, what do you wish that you had known before you had gotten started?

0:18:13.9 Ilyssa: I think I would have wanted to know patience, right? We want everything to happen all at once, and we also need to recognize that we can't get you, you can't get to the final spot. Not there is a final spot, but you can't get to the end until you've put in the labor and the learning. Every year at Landforce, because we so far have been seasonal, that's about to change, but so far we've been seasonal, so we've had the luxury of not running any programming from December until March, but as soon as December hits or November hits, we are starting the analysis of what happened beforehand. We're looking deeply at what went well, where the challenges were, what policy issues, what program issues, where we could strengthen, what additional resources we need to bring in. And we are not recreating the program, but we are adding on enough layers and taking off enough layers that things have been significantly different each year. And it's exciting. It probably drives some of my teammates nuts, but we're better for it. And we know what direction we're going in because of it.

0:19:41.8 David: So it sounds like as you look ahead into the next few years, one of the goals is not being seasonally. Where do you see Landforce heading in the next few years? Are there other areas of service to the community, conservation goals? What are the things that are on your radar as you're continuing to think into the future?

0:20:01.6 Ilyssa: So we're really excited. We are embarking on a second business line and the second business line is urban wood reuse. So what that means is that trees that are either cut down or fall down in and around the city of Pittsburgh are generally mulched and put in the landfill. And that's true of many urban trees everywhere, mulched in landfill, and that releases all the carbon and it also takes up space in the landfill and it wastes perfectly valuable resource. So we are partially there in our fundraising to start an urban sawmill in Pittsburgh that will be able to take those trees, turn them into lumber and then have that lumber be sold as resale. It gives us the opportunity to work across the winter months and keep people hired, but it also gives us the ability to provide more training and more skills for people in a different way than we have so far.

0:21:08.1 Ilyssa: What's also exciting, if I can give a little shout out for the Inflation Reduction Act. We are part of a Pittsburgh collaborative called the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance that has gotten one of the urban and community forestry grants of the IRA. And we, as the Workforce Development Organization, are also going to be doing more winter pruning and tree care and be able to create more of an, or board culture curriculum for our crew members so they can be working literally from planting the tree to turning the tree into a resource.

0:21:48.8 David: So, yeah. Wow, that's really cool. Yeah. And it continues to add social impact, but also in similar spaces, so that's really cool.

0:21:58.1 Ilyssa: Yeah, yeah. And this is a, it is a shout out to Belinda Lee, who I know is on the SCA board 'cause she was the one who created our business plan.

0:22:10.2 David: Oh, awesome.

0:22:12.0 Ilyssa: Along with some local sources.

0:22:14.6 Lauren: Oh, Belinda, that's so awesome. We're big fans of Belinda. It's really incredible to hear about this work. Thank you so much for just taking the time to share it with us. I know our listeners are really gonna appreciate it. Speaking of our listeners, where can they connect with you? How do they find out more about Landforce in ways that they can support you or even get involved?

0:22:35.0 Ilyssa: Sure. So we are and you'll find us in all of the social media and on the website under You are welcome to reach out to me. I am Ilyssa. That's I-L-Y-S-S-A And I'm always happy to chat to other people about what we do and how we do it. And we often get inquiries from other cities or other regions about starting something up. And we're always happy to share our experience with you.

0:23:14.1 Lauren: Thank you so, so much for just sharing your wisdom with us. This has been really inspiring.

0:23:18.7 David: Yeah. Thank you so much, Ilyssa, for just joining us today and for the work that you're doing, like, it's just such an inspiration.

0:23:25.2 Ilyssa: Thank you both so much. I really appreciated being here. It was a lot of fun. Glad we finally got to do it.