Ellen Carlson, Middleton Outreach Ministry

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Ellen Carlson, community relations manager, Middleton Outreach Ministry, and co-owner, Half-Pint Resale.

1. What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

The most challenging part of my job is trying to help people break down their misunderstandings of people who live in poverty. In an age where we seem to believe everything we hear and unknowingly pick up on phrases that are better suited for marketing than belief structures, it is challenging to create the message that stops people in their tracks, makes them think, and then encourages them to get involved and support the work we are doing.

It is rewarding that the work that I do at MOM helps people see our shared humanity. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always had somewhere to turn when I’ve truly needed something. MOM is here to be that support and hope for people in our community who are struggling with housing security and hunger. This mission makes even the simplest tasks important and fulfilling.

Finally, I have the privilege of working with some of the most passionate and caring people in our community. Whether it’s with fellow staff, volunteers, or concerned community members, not a day goes by that I am not inspired by people giving of themselves to make our community a better place for all.  

2. Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

I really admire Adorable.io, the company that has partnered with the YWCA to create YWebCA. They looked at their own business, saw inequities in our community, and saw a way that they could step in and make a difference. If every business and individual did that in our own circles of influence, our community would be changed for the better. 

3. What has been the high point of your career so far?

Beyond my work at MOM, I’ve had the opportunity to use my skills and interests to create. From a small business to a communitywide city-funded art project, I always have a new project or new passion that I am exploring, and my high point is always whatever new endeavor in which I am currently immersed!  

Right now, I’m working with a group of individuals, businesses, and organizations who want to bring more coding and digital literacy opportunities to the youth of our community — both an opportunity to engage young people in 21st century skills and an opportunity to influence the future talent pool in Dane County. It’s exciting to think about what we are creating and all of the possibilities.  

One of the strangest things that has happened to me was when two other local healthy school food activists and I were featured briefly in an HBO documentary. I had Emmy-winning producers and a film crew in my living room, and then I saw myself on a movie screen. It was, and still is, surreal.

4. Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

When I was 21, I felt like anything in my life was possible. As life unfolded, I realized quickly that following an “expected path” wasn’t as easy as it sounded and certainly wasn’t always as fulfilling. 

I would tell myself that life will be confusing and the correct path when choices present themselves will not always be clear, but in staying true to my passions and values I will find balance and happiness. This is probably the same lesson that my 60-year-old-self will tell my 35-year-old-self as well! Understanding success for oneself seems like it will be a lesson that will take a lifetime.

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5. What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

I adore big cities, but I love working in an area the size of Dane County. It is just big enough that there is always something exciting and interesting happening, yet it’s small enough that there are ways to make meaningful relationships and collaborations on a more accessible scale.

I also love living in this area because of all of the water that surrounds us. I grew up in the Twin Cities minutes from several lakes, and breathing in lake air and being by the water is essential for my soul. When my life is most full and I need a quick escape, I shove my kayak in my car and take a 30-minute paddle on the Yahara River. It calms my mind every time.

I’m a third generation Badger (both of my parents and my grandfather went to school here) and love being a Wisconsinite as much as I do a Minnesotan. And finally, I have the most amazing friends, and they are a support network that surpasses anything I could have ever imagined. If we ever move, I’m taking every single one of them with me. 

6. Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

I love to sing! Growing up, I was always belting out whatever song was on the radio, and annoyed my friends by singing harmony to every song. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself or with my kids, who are convinced that I know the words to every obscure song. This is probably due to a childhood listening to the Prairie Home Companion and growing up with a mom and grandparents who also love to sing. I miss singing with other people and someday I hope to rejoin a choir. I need to find more space in my life for music.

7. What are your guilty pleasures?

Because I have many projects outside of work, it’s not unusual for me to be working on something on my laptop in the evening. If I can swing it, I turn on Netflix while I’m working, and add a glass of beer and a bowl of popcorn (and maybe some nacho cheese). My pet rabbit, Newton, who also has a thing for crunchy snacks, knows the routine so well that when I sit down on the couch with my laptop and a bowl, he hops up next to me and tries to jump in for his share of the snack.

In my free time, you can find me enjoying one of the never-ending fun things to do in Madison with my friends, boys, and husband, Michael, running, hanging out with my bunny, volunteering, cooking, kayaking, sewing, listening to music, or just laughing at the insanity that surrounds me in my small house that is filled with the sounds of my loud, opinionated, fun-loving family. I suppose any one of these could be a guilty pleasure (given that I often forgo the “must-dos” of life for all of them) but I’ll never feel guilty for enjoying this one short life.

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