Ricardo Diaz believes that Milwaukee’s Latinx community is one of the city’s greatest assets. Over the past nearly 40 years, he has served as one of its biggest advocates.

Diaz retired in May 2020 as executive director of the United Community Center after leading the agency for 17 years. He is credited with helping the nonprofit broaden its mission, expand its footprint on the south side and heighten its reputation across the city. By understanding a community’s needs and an organization’s potential, he transformed the UCC into a powerhouse organization that is one of Milwaukee’s jewels.

He credits a young man named Victor, whom he was assigned to tutor while a college student, for inspiring him to explore a career in social services. Diaz was recruited to Carroll University from Puerto Rico, where he was living at the time, and had planned to major in Spanish and physical education. Diaz met Victor during the second semester of his freshman year. The 13-year-old could only read at a second grade level and had struggled with emotional and family issues. Diaz spent time with him a few days a week at the local library to tutor and mentor him.

Working closely with Victor, Diaz said, taught him about the different issues facing the Latino community and how poverty affected families.

“It was a real eye-opening experience and changed my whole trajectory,” said Diaz, who changed his major to social work as a sophomore. “I thought I could do something to help this young man, but perhaps maybe I could also do something a bit larger.”

He helped create a volunteer tutoring program at Carroll for local Waukesha students. After graduation he became executive director of La Casa de Esperanza, a community-based organization dedicated to serving Waukesha’s low-income and Latino population.

Diaz describes himself as someone who is all about finding solutions and looking at assets, rather than deficits.

“Our problems are solvable,” said Diaz, who served as UCC’s executive director from 1984 to 1988, before returning to the position in 2003. “It’s a question of putting the right people in the right place to do it.”

That outlook drove his work not only in the nonprofit sector, but also the public sector, where he spent four years as Milwaukee Commissioner of City Development and executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. 

Throughout his time at UCC, Diaz saw what an asset the agency could be for Milwaukee, particularly its Latinx community. The goal, he said, was to build a bridge to a middle class. More than 75 percent of the families it serves are low-income.Under his leadership, UCC became a multifaceted social service agency that serves more than 18,000 annually, from 6-week-old babies to 106-year-olds, and strengthens the community through education, homeownership, arts and culture and other programs.

In addition to the team that he worked with over the years, Diaz said he is most proud of UCC’s work toward creating an educational pipeline for the Latinx community. From its early learning academy to its public charter elementary and middle schools, UCC serves more than 1,300 students. Ninety-six percent of its students graduate high school. Eighty-five percent enroll in higher education. Four hundred students are now in college.

“There is a trust that we’ve established in the school with the parents and the community,” Diaz said. “If you go to UCC as a kid, you most likely will go to college. That kind of mindset that exists in the middle class families in the U.S. doesn’t traditionally exist in communities of color. That exists at UCC.”

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