By Amie Hoag, GCC director of communications and annual giving
When Letesha Nelson joined the Goodman Community Center in January 2021 as CEO and executive director, she came in with one mission in mind: learn as much about this organization as she could, as quickly as she could.
Nelson sat down with every staff member to learn about their job, what they loved about Goodman and what they thought Goodman could be doing better. She went hands-on, helping organize meal deliveries and sorting food in the pantry. She visited classrooms and got to know students.
“There’s so much expertise … and so much commitment from our staff making sure people feel like this is their place and that they have a voice.”
Now over a year later, Nelson not only has a great command of how the Goodman Center works to strengthen lives and secure futures in the Madison community, she also has some big plans for the organization’s future.
“Some days it’s overwhelming,” she said at a recent community chat with Goodman board member Dulce Danel. “I get overwhelmed because there’s so much expertise within these two buildings, and so much commitment from our staff to making sure people feel like this is their place and that they have a voice. We need to make sure we use that expertise to its fullest potential.”
In her chat with Danel, Nelson covered a range of dreams — dreams she’s working to make a reality for Goodman — and those dreams came down to three main categories: family engagement; college, career and community readiness; and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Supporting the whole family
“You know, family engagement is more than us putting on an event,” Nelson said. “Those are important, but we’re also looking at how we can bring services that our families need in the way they need it. And it’s not always the same for each family. We’re figuring out how to be more equitable about how we serve our families on a day-to-day basis.”
Part of that work includes two family engagement and outreach staff members, Arthur Morgan and Shantrice Solis. Morgan has been working with the Goodman Center for more than three decades, and part of that work has always included going the extra mile to check in on kids and help parents navigate the school system. Now, in his role as family advocacy manager, he’s focused on that support full time.
“Arthur is the conduit between children, families and schools,” said Nelson. “He’s making it OK for our families to reach to him, to let him know what’s going on with their children. To ask for help when they need to address something with the school but don’t know how to do it.”
Morgan checks in on students regularly as well. He’s a trusted adult in their lives who’s not a parent — something every kid needs. He makes regular calls to Goodman students who need that extra connector to check in, see if they made it to school and if they haven’t, find out why not.
Part of Morgan’s team is Solis, Goodman’s community engagement specialist. Solis not only hosts outreach events in the community to share information about the services Goodman provides, but she’s also leading initiatives to better support families and students in our community, including a free career clothing closet that launched last month and the Family and Schools Together (FAST) program.
FAST is a formalized program that aims to “build stronger families” through conversation, engagement and support. Parents who participate in the FAST program meet regularly for eight weeks to talk through challenges they’re facing as parents, as well as to learn to better engage with their children. Out of the program comes a support system of peers that parents can turn to for help and advice. Parent-child-school relationships are strengthened. Family cohesion increases and parents are more engaged with the school and their children’s education.
That’s a lot, right? For Nelson, it’s not enough. She sees family engagement as a “trifecta” and would love to add a social worker to the Goodman Center family.
“Our staff, while they play case manager in a lot of ways, they’re not case managers,” she said. “They’re everyday people who love people. If we had a social worker on-site, we could provide a space where parents who are having issues could come in and talk through it with a professional who knows exactly how to help them, what services to refer them to.”
Nelson sees Goodman as a beacon in the community. “I tell people all the time that Goodman is the kind of place where, if you come here and need something, you’re going to get your needs met. Even if we don’t have it, we’re going to find it for you. That’s the stuff you don’t always hear about at Goodman. Inside this organization, everything we’re doing, even when no one is looking, is about building community.”
College, career and COMMUNITY readiness
High schools across the country talk a lot about college and career readiness. So does the Goodman Center. Nelson aims to add a third C to that list — community.
“The college and career things are great and wonderful and yes, they are needed,” she said. “But they mean nothing if our youth don’t understand that this community is their community. They have an obligation to take whatever their gifts are and pour that back into the community.”
She sees Goodman staff instilling that very value into participants every day.
“Our staff empower our students to figure out if they want to go to college or if they want to have a career. They help them explore their options,” Nelson said. “And they also — and more importantly, I think — help youth figure out their voice and how their actions will be used within this community that has served them.”
Nelson used as an example the crosswalk beacon that will be installed at Waubesa Street and Atwood Avenue next summer, something that is happening because Lussier LOFT middle school students took the initiative to appeal to city government to make that crossing safer.
“We heard from community members on our Facebook page that they were so grateful for this beacon at this particular intersection,” she said. “It was important for our youth to see that their initiative, them taking the time to put in the work, helps them but also helps everyone who will use that crosswalk.”
Showing youth that their community needs them as much as they need their community is important. It’s a reciprocity that builds trust, said Nelson, and trust leads to youth being willing to accept support when they need it.
Nelson has her eye on 18- to 21-year-olds. She wants to build a program that will help support young adults as they navigate those first years of college or the workforce. She sees Goodman as a building ground for the workforce development initiatives happening throughout the city, like the ones at the Urban League and Operation Fresh Start.
“I want to build a program for young adults,” said Nelson. “We’re doing it unofficially on a one-off basis, but I want it to be real and formalized. A space where kids can say, ‘I’m grown up, but Goodman says that I’m a young adult who still needs support.’”
“That’s a different language,” Nelson added. “That small shift is going to allow our students to be able to say, ‘I got to this point. I’m strong enough now that I can give back to somebody else who’s not.’” She smiled. “That’s the cycle we want to perpetuate.”
Diversity, equity, inclusion and BELONGING
DEI — standing for diversity, equity and inclusion — has been a buzzword the last two years, and for good reason. At Goodman, it’s something staff have practiced on a personal level for years. Nelson is working to build systems and structures around it to make that work more intentional.
“In the last year, we’ve taken our staff through many trainings because it’s important for us to have some common language and some common places where we can meet each other on the same wavelength,” she said. “It’s a journey, you know. You don’t learn all of the things and then stop doing them. You have to learn and then continue to build on that learning so you’re always better, always thinking about the next right thing that you can do.”
One small example of that work in action: Goodman’s Fritz Food Pantry recently translated its shopping signs into five languages. If a person is a Spanish speaker, for example, and doesn’t know the word for a food in English, the sign will help them navigate and communicate better. Suddenly, they feel a sense of belonging where they could have felt a sense of otherness.
“It’s important for us to have some common language and some common places where we can meet each other on the same wavelength.”
That belonging is a feeling Nelson plans to chase. Last fall, she met with a group of middle school students to get their thoughts on a DEI vision statement she’s crafting. She started by asking the students how they want to feel when they come to Goodman. One student’s answer nearly left Nelson in tears.
“He said, ‘You already make me feel like I belong here. Goodman is already a place where I know I belong. It’s my second home,’” she recounted. “Watching the faces of the other youth in the room as he talked, I could see that they co-signed what he had said. They felt the same way too.”
One young lady in the room told Nelson she wants everyone who visits Goodman to feel the warmth, comfort and support she feels, and that’s Nelson’s goal too. As staff are exploring their DEI work, she’s emphasizing meeting everyone who walks through the Goodman Center doors where they are, and her goal is for every single person to feel like they belong at the center.
“That’s what I want other people to feel when they come,” she said. “I want them to come and know that they have a place here.
“We’ve got to love and take care of one another and the only way we can do that is to make each other feel like we belong with one another.”
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