Ilyssa Manspeizer
Ilyssa Manspeizer

Throughout her 30-year career, she’s conducted research on conservation and community development in the U.K. and Zambia, monitored elephants in Ethiopia and led the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation. Now Ilyssa Manspeizer heads up Landforce — which recently won the prestigious Google Impact Challenge and People’s Choice Awards.

A dedication to equity runs through all of Ilyssa’s work, which is currently focused on combining workforce readiness with land stewardship. The New Jersey native — who lives in Squirrel Hill with her husband Brian Cohen and youngest daughter — says that her other three children “are in the process of flying the coop!”

What upcoming events are you excited to attend?

Our crews are working on some very cool projects this year. If we look to the very near future, I’m excited about a project funded by the Buhl Foundation as part of the One Northside initiative that we’re working on with Trek Development, the Housing Authority and Mistick Construction at Allegheny Dwellings. Our crews will be creating a trail to connect the new housing to a local ball field, improving access for a housing site that can otherwise feel a little cut off from everything. We’ll also be constructing rain gardens to slow stormwater runoff and removing massive vines that make the whole space feel unwelcoming, and would, if left untreated, bring down some very large trees. It’s a space that needs a lot of TLC, but these three simple things should make the world of difference to the people who live at Allegheny Dwellings.

As far as non-work events, I confess, I love my unscheduled time. I’m a homebody, happiest at home, sitting in our lovely little, secluded garden, puttering around, reading a book, and hanging out with family and friends. Having said that, I’m really excited for the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh’s June 5th encore performance of The Music of Bob Dylan at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. We have a good friend who sings with the choir, and really, where else can you hear a symphonic chorus singing Bob Dylan, outside?

Ilyssa Manspeizer
Ilyssa Manspeizer in the Landforce office. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Best part of your job?

Why do these questions keep getting harder? I love so many things about my job — my colleagues and board members, their passion, creativity and dedication; our mission — to combine environmental work and workforce readiness in places, and with people, that need it most; our funders, donors and supporters who believe in our mission and in our ability to meet our mission.

Yet, if I close my eyes and seek out that workplace that always makes me happiest, that comes with the least complications and the greatest joy, it has to be the rare occasion when I get to sneak out of the office and spend a day with our crew members working in the woods. Sometimes it’s clearing out invasive plants, cleaning up a dumpsite or more usually, building a trail, but I always come away invigorated. Exhausted. But invigorated.

The work always feels good, and restoring our environment is a blessing, but what invigorates me most is spending a day with a group of people who have often led really difficult lives, and are so intent on doing this work — improving the environment, but more importantly, improving their own chances for a successful and productive life through the work they do at Landforce. It’s their energy, their commitment, and their resolve to take this opportunity and run with it that infects me. Every. Darn. Time.

What’s your big idea for Pittsburgh?

Leave no one behind.

How is the Google Impact Challenge impacting your work and vision?

We are thrilled to be the Google Impact Challenge Award Winners and the People’s Choice Winner (thank you for voting for us!) because it allows us to act upon our firm belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to benefit from Pittsburgh’s renaissance and to have a good job. The Challenge Award will enable us to expand our services and begin connecting people who have been dislocated from work to trainings and experiential learning in green technology.

For us, green technology is any profession that makes our environment a little healthier and more sustainable, so anywhere from renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) to deconstruction of old buildings to green infrastructure / stormwater reduction to managing green buildings. We’ve got a good thing going here already, and are making headway improving our collective environment and providing the platform for people who work with us to do great things in their lives. The Google Impact Challenge will allow us to take what we’ve learned so far, and fly!

What is your favorite green space in Pittsburgh or beyond, and why?

Really? Just one? That seems completely unfair for someone who has worked in Pittsburgh’s parks for the last dozen years! Emerald View Park — one I helped develop. Frick Park — one I run in nearly every day. Schenley Park — one I brought my kids to play in. Dead Man’s Hollow — one Landforce has spent a lot of time in. South Side Park — one that has some of the most amazing volunteer engagement. Kafue National Park (Zambia) — where I did my dissertation research, and Southwest Forest (Ethiopia) — where I counted elephants from a helicopter. How many words did you say I could use?

What’s one thing you’d place in a Pittsburgh time capsule?

A video recording of a community meeting. Or maybe a virtual reality experience of a community meeting.

Podcast you’re addicted to?

Radiolab — it might be old school, but it’s consistently high quality and interesting.

Bridge you LOVE to walk or bike over?

I’m partial to the beautiful Smithfield Street Bridge. When I worked in Mount Washington, I used to take the incline down and walk over the bridge to Downtown. The first time I did that it was February. That wasn’t so much fun.

Ilyssa Manspeizer
Ilyssa, her husband, Brian, son, Jacob, and future daughter-in-law, Emily, after climbing Mount Snowden in Wales.

Who is the last person you texted and why?

My husband, Brian Cohen. Politics.

Last photo you took on my phone?

A screenshot I took of an article from The New York Times. See previous question.

Where will we find you on a Sunday morning?

Running the trails in Frick Park.

Favorite Pittsburgh athlete, living or dead?

Terry Bradshaw. Even though I grew up in NJ and knew (know) nothing about football, I was drawn to him as a kid. Maybe that was a sign that I’d choose to live here one day?

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Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.