On Minority Leadership, Nonprofits, and Investing in Our Communities
by Jacklin Bolduan
This is the second installment of The Madison Times’ series on nonprofit organizations and the role they play in our communities.
Knowing The Need At ten thirty on a Wednesday morning Will Green is seated at a desk in front of his laptop in a small apartment-turned-office in the Darbo Neighborhood on Madison’s east side. Situated in a residential area overlooking Worthington Park, the space serves as the headquarters for Mentoring Positives, a nonprofit mentoring program focusing on at-risk youth that Green and his wife Becky founded in 2004.
The program shares its initials MP with another influence in Green’s life, his mother, Muriel Pipkins, who died at the age of 46 from breast cancer. “Losing my mom pushed me over the edge,” says Green, who credits his inspiration for the program to his mother. He does the work because he has an acute understanding of what some of the kids he works with are going through.
“I am these kids. I come from Gary, Indiana. Sometimes no heat, no lights, no running water in the house. That’s just what it was…I come from a culture where that’s just normal.”
Mentoring Positives (MP) grew rapidly – “Before I knew it I had sixteen kids,” said Green.
The program has evolved over the past eleven years from a one-on-one mentoring agency in which Green mentored youth on his own to an organization with a wealth of programming. MP now includes a leadership academy, a social enterprise program called Off The Block, in which youth create and market their own products like salsa and jewelry, and a summertime Play-Eat-Grow program that fosters gardening and social skills — just to name a few.
The MP brand of mentorship focuses on skill-building with a solid foundation of personal and social development based in reflective discussion. “We look for ways to engage the kids in positive programming. But also with every program we have we always try to encompass some kind of competency development piece to it,” said Green.
Their work has shifted largely to group work in which youth can build mentorships amongst themselves. “That’s what we’re trying to do is have those younger youth and younger generation understand that it’s their responsibility to take care of the kids coming up.”
Investments That Matter
“I used to mentor one-on-one a lot and we’ve moved away from that model because it just wasn’t economically viable for us at the time,” Green said.
He and his wife have been running their business in addition to facilitating programming since they began. Apart from the two of them, the organization has only two other staff members who serve as mentors and lead programming pieces. They rely heavily on interns and volunteers sourced from their strong relationship with UW’s Morgridge Center for Public Service and Badger Volunteers.
Of course, there are benefits to this kind of structure, as Green, his wife and their staff can build strong and lasting relationships with the youth they mentor, some of whom they’ve known since the program’s start eleven years ago.
Green even says that in the last four months he’s had three of his long-time mentees ask him to cosign on apartment leases. But, he doesn’t know if they’re “just there yet.” This structure, however, is also a barrier to the growth Mentoring Positives could be experiencing. More staff would allow for more diverse programming and would free up Green and his wife to make moves towards the future.
“Me and my wife do a lot of direct care and direct work so it doesn’t allow a lot of time to sit down and forecast how we can move forward,” he said.
He has high goals for the program’s expansion in the near future, including a reach to some west side neighborhoods. However, there are financial restrictions they experience as a nonprofit organization that goes without public funding.
“Oftentimes we get overlooked for financial support. For whatever reason that is, whether it’s not a well-written grant or your infrastructure’s not right,” said Green.
“We’re changing a lot of lives in Madison. We have done a lot of work from a grassroots level. A lot of large organizations can’t have the impact we have. We pride ourselves on that. It wasn’t the money I got into this for. I have a love for our people. I want to inspire what they can be,” Green said.
“These are some pressing issues and a lot of things thrown my way that oftentimes maybe other CEOs may have that assistant that can take the calendar. And that’s not happening.”
It isn’t that Green wants to distance himself from the on-the-ground work his program does; rather, he wants to be able to do more of it, in more places, more often.
Meanwhile, he is also the Community Center Director for the Salvation Army, which is visible from the window in the Mentoring Positives office, across Rosemary Avenue and just past the neighborhood park. His work there is closely tied to his own business, as the program uses the Salvation Army’s space for programming, basketball games, even just a place to gather. The Salvation Army is not city-funded and runs solely on private funds, which sometimes aren’t enough. As a result, the building has been neglected and cannot meet the increasing needs of the community around it.
Nonetheless, it continues to function as such. However, without sufficient funding it will not be able to maintain its services.
“I know how many people are in the gym and hanging out and how many kids come to the door and just beg to get in there. It’s not making a lot of sense. So now the Salvation Army is footing the bill taking care of this community on its own to where I’ve seen in two years that staff have to get cut. We don’t have a lot of resources for our kids and families over here,” Green said.
He is urging city leaders to funnel funds into these community spaces and organizations that already exist, as they best know how to serve their own neighborhoods. In fact, he says, The Salvation Army and Mentoring Positives have been doing what’s best for a long time. He says it’s not just an issue of funding but doing what’s right for Madison’s most struggling and under-resourced communities. And with its demographic consisting of mostly renting, low-income minority populations, Darbo is certainly one of them.
“Here we are sitting in a two block radius. This has been a challenged neighborhood for thirty years. It’s such a travesty. It doesn’t even make sense,” Green lamented.
“We could really impact this space. If there’s a challenged neighborhood in Madison, this is the one to change. And probably have an immediate impact if we really focus on what we really need to be focusing on,” he said.
Of course, there are city-funded community centers on Madison’s east side. The Goodman and East Madison Community Centers are publicly funded and are stacked with community programming. Although an asset to their surrounding blocks, Green says they’re not enough to reach crucial neighborhoods that lie outside those areas. There is no guarantee that people will access those programs, especially if they have to travel to seek them out.
“I think if you want to empower neighborhoods like this you have to come from the inside out,” he said.
People have asked him why he doesn’t collaborate with these entities so the funds might be spread around.
“That makes sense. It does. But at a point in time where we have reports like this come out,” as he lifts up Madison’s Race to Equity report, “I’m not about to add to this anymore. Any resources that come here need to come directly here so we can be intentional about the outcomes and what’s really gonna happen with the new resources that come here so we don’t cover that up,” he said.
What if it was right here in the neighborhood?
Green not only envisions an increase in funding to nonprofits like his, but is calling for a broader, more lasting investment in struggling neighborhoods through other venues. He planned to attend the Mayor’s Neighborhood Roundtable Conference, which was held at Warner Park this past Saturday, to discuss these opportunities with city leaders, who are already aware of target neighborhoods.
“We’ve determined that we have nine or ten low income neighborhoods. That could give us a laser focus,” he said.
“Maybe we need economic development, maybe we need childcare, maybe we need entrepreneurship, maybe we need something in the neighborhoods that incorporates the people and empowers them so maybe they can get living wage jobs,” Green continued.
He hopes to encourage investment in neighborhood economies so that they might function as actual business ventures such as barbershops, restaurants, or construction work.
Green says the bottom line is about investing in minority leadership that reflects the needs, desires, and systems that neighborhoods already have in place. In fact, in the Darbo neighborhood alone there is already a strong presence of minority leadership – Fabiola Hamdan, the neighborhood social worker, and Lester Moore, the neighborhood officer, for example.
“Two dynamic authority figures in this small little radius. And you fail to call on us and see how you really can support this work,” said Green.
“And the bad part about it is we have all the brick and mortar right across the street,” referring to The Salvation Army.
The space, leadership, and structures already exist. They’re just in need of support.
“Madison’s got to support it and don’t let it fail. Because we don’t let a lot of other things fail in the community and this city. And it’s their responsibility. Don’t let it fail,” he warned.
When asked what the outlook is for his and other neighborhood nonprofit organizations, he is hopeful.
“I don’t know how much farther I can go if there’s not an emphasis placed on minority-based leadership and white Madison stepping back and allowing that to happen and be invited in when it’s time. I think we all have to work together. There’s a time for everything,” he counseled.
“I want us to work together more comprehensively. I’m optimistic that’s gonna happen.”
The kind of product Mentoring Positives produces is measured by the community’s deep trust in Green, his wife, and their staff, the lasting relationships they continue to build, and actual numbers. The organization had data research conducted last year.
”We know our kids are making better decisions. They’re having a brighter outlook on their lives,” said Green.
It’s clear neighborhood nonprofits like Green’s provide a good return on any investment.
WIll Green would like to thank Blackhawk Church, The Evjue Foundation, Cuna Mutual, and many individual donors for their continued support. If you’d like to support Mentoring Positives be sure to visit their website at www.mentoringpositives.org and attend their fundraising event at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Dec.5 from 6-10PM. Off The Block Salsa can be found at your nearest Metcalfe’s Market and other select retailers in the Madison area.