Corry Joe Biddle has lived in Milwaukee since she was six weeks old, and yet it wasn't until adulthood that Biddle saw the entire city, both literally and figuratively.
During her childhood, Biddle was solely familiar with the offerings of the North Side, but very little beyond the neighborhood. Through education, motivation and professional opportunities, Biddle discovered all of Brew City's assets – as well as its barriers for people of color.
Biddle, who is the VP of community affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and the executive director of FUEL Milwaukee, works tirelessly to improve Milwaukee by helping others enjoy and engage in its opportunities.
"Our goal is for people to really become part of Milwaukee's fabric and feel a part of the culture even if they didn’t grow up here," she says.
But her biggest job is as a passionate and dedicated mom to her two school-aged children.
"I’m hoping that for my children, the only barriers will be them realizing that there are no barriers," says Biddle.
Enjoy this latest segment of "Black is Beautiful" with Corry Joe Biddle.
OnMilwaukee: Where were you born and raised?
Corry Joe Biddle: I was born in San Francisco, but my family moved here when I was six weeks old so I’m a native Milwaukeean. I grew up on the North Side of Milwaukee, went to Golda Meir Elementary, Morse Middle School and graduated from Rufus King High School.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the first two years of college, and then returned to Milwaukee and graduated from Mount Mary. Being in Tulsa was the start of my understanding that Milwaukee is a special community and a huge part of my upbringing.
What did you get your degree in?
I graduated from Mount Mary with a degree in professional writing. I started college as a business administration major, but my professors kept pushing me to major in English because they could see I had a talent for writing. My mother was also naturally a strong writer, so I didn’t really realize it as a talent until I started writing at the college level.
It wasn’t my passion. I actually had no clue what my passion was, but I chose writing because I could see how being an excellent, trained writer would be an asset to me no matter what I decided to do career-wise.
What was your first job out of college?
I interned for Manpower during my senior year of college and then got a job as a corporate proposal writer in the North American Sales. This was when the company was on Port Washington Road and it looked so grand and stately with all the flags blowing in the wind out in front. I was so proud to be working there and it was a good jumpstart for my career.
After Manpower, I became a grant writer for America’s Black Holocaust Museum, a place I’d interned with since my Freshman year in college. Back then, the museum’s founder, Dr. James Cameron, was still coming in everyday and spending considerable time with museum visitors. He was the only known, living survivor of a lynching and the museum told the story of injustice suffered by Black Americans from the time of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through modern day. As an intern, I worked in the office, gave tours, and managed the gift shop. It was an incredible experience.
I was ready to leave Manpower because I wanted a job where I could interact with people more in person. So, the museum’s board chair at the time, Marissa Weaver, eventually offered me a full-time job as a grant writer – but in the non-profit world roles are much more dynamic than how they appear at face value. I knew I’d be doing all kinds of stuff and I was excited about that. I also had been mentored by Marissa for many years at that point, and she was really good about pushing me to see my potential and take a risk. She was a huge influence in my early career because she was smart and fearless. I wanted to be like that.
Some other well-meaning people in my life were like “why are you leaving a good corporate job for a non-profit?” I took the job anyway. And the opportunity introduced me to all aspects of running the museum and serving the community. I ended up being the Executive Director of the museum for more than 2 years. It was a lot of long hours, but I loved it and I learned what I like to do versus what I’m just good at – and in many cases, there’s a difference.
So then the museum closed and you moved on to where?
The museum stayed open for one year after I left. But I was ready to move on because I’d realized that I really enjoyed marketing and the use of communication to drive behavior in people. The MMAC (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) is where I landed and that’s where I am still today. I’m the VP of community affairs for the MMAC and the executive director of FUEL Milwaukee, a talent attraction and retention program powered by the MMAC.
FUEL helps Milwaukee professionals connect with the community through exposure to people, events, brands, accessible leadership and a vibrant social scene. Our goal is for people to really become part of Milwaukee's fabric and feel a part of the culture even if they didn’t grow up here.
If I’m doing my job right, a Milwaukee professional will get a job offer from another city and struggle with the decision because they feel so connected to Milwaukee. My job is to get people to fall in love with Milwaukee. To be so knitted into the community that it’s hard for them to leave.
I met Shelley Jurewicz, the founding director of FUEL Milwaukee, through Mary Cole – a former Manpower colleague. Shelley met and hired me based partly on Mary’s recommendation and the work I’d done at the museum. Every part of my life has touched every other part. Every risk and every connection has mattered in some way, which is why I’m so passionate about the connections that FUEL helps people to make.
Is Milwaukee a challenging place for new residents to feel a part of?
Yes. Milwaukee which is not a transient city; many people live here for their entire lives. It’s not easy to make friends here, even though we are friendly, it’s not a part of our culture to invite new people into our social and familial circles. I understand this first-hand because I still hang out with people I went to elementary school with. But FUEL is here to make “transplants” really thrive here.
In larger cities, this is built into the culture. People are very quick to open their social circles or say something like, “Oh you are new here? Well come to my house for Thanksgiving.” Milwaukeeans are nice, but we’re not super quick to bring someone new into the fold which is exactly why FUEL exists.
How has working for FUEL changed your perception of Milwaukee, even though you have lived here almost your entire life?
Milwaukee is so segregated that many people, myself included, don’t even realize they are only seeing a small part of it. For me, I started to see so much more of Milwaukee after I started working for FUEL. I remember walking into Mikey’s on Jefferson Street and I was just like “Wow. I had no idea anything this cool existed in Milwaukee.” I grew up going to Ponderosa and Applebees. Not the most swanky places to hang out, but on my side of town, that’s what I was exposed to as a kid. I thought that the entire city was the same and didn’t realize how siloed we really are as a community.
Working for FUEL, my job was to write about and plan events with some of the coolest, most interesting places and people in the region. I was being exposed to a whole new world, just 15 minutes away from where I grew up. Most of our activity is focused on Downtown Milwaukee, which we didn’t frequent when I was a kid.
I thought I’d work at MMAC for two years and then move to Atlanta or some other city with a high concentration of successful Black people. FUEL is a major reason why I didn’t make that move and now I see our city with different eyes.
What projects have you worked on that you are the most proud?
MMAC’s Region of Choice initiative comes to mind first. We are working to address racial disparities to improve prosperity for all. We are specifically focused on expanding opportunities and creating equity for Black and Brown talent, students and businesses.
Through this initiative there are now 113 local businesses committed to increasing their percentage of Black and Brown managers and making a commitment to examining and changing their company cultures to become more inclusive. I’ve had the opportunity to work more closely with Julie Granger who heads up this work and is a Senior VP for MMAC. She works tirelessly and I’m inspired by her every day. Tim Sheehy, MMAC’s president is also instrumental in this work, and though I’ve known him for the entire 13 years that I’ve worked for MMAC, I’m learning so much from seeing him bring our organization on this journey.
I’m excited about this opportunity because people of all races are starting to understand that equity is about systems and knocking down systems that promote disparity. In the past, I think people hesitated to address racial inequity for fear that it pointed to some sort of flaw in them as an individual.
With the focus more on systems, everyone can be a part of the dismantling and start to have real conversations about what inclusion and equity really looks like. The majority population has learned to operate as the default, making special accommodations (or not) for everyone else. We’re really working to try to unlearn that mode of operation and do the challenging work of equity in companies, hiring, community building and economic development in general.
Do you have any kids?
I have two kids: a 10-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. They are at that fun stage where they just want to learn about everything and interpret the world for themselves. As a mom, this is an exciting stage, but it’s also scary for me. Their dad and me aren’t their only influences anymore, and I’m starting to realize that my job is to help them develop values and the sense of self to navigate the world they’re going to encounter.
They are resilient, funny, beautiful and optimistic. They even think washing dishes is fun. We’ll see how long that lasts. But I’m proud to be raising good people and I’m really enjoying the boy and girl I see growing in front of me. I love them so much.
Do you feel hopeful for your kids' futures?
I do feel hopeful. I think the youngest generations are going to be more rooted in ideas of equity because it’s going to be more of a norm for them. They are certainly going to have their challenges, but my children are already more open-minded than I am and they are forcing me to check my own biases and tendency to lean toward the status quo. I hope they grow into a world that offers them as much possibility and opportunity as it offers to anyone else.
I’m hoping that for my children the only barriers will be them realizing that there are no barriers and having the moxie to dream and do whatever they can imagine.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.