Will Green, of Mentoring Positives

Last Thursday, Will Green knew he would be honored for his community work. As a recipient of the Nan Cheney March for Justice award, presented in a ceremony at the Monona Terrace Convention Center, he would get a $15,000 grant.

But he didn’t know he would leave the ceremony with a check from CUNA Mutual Group Foundation for $175,000. Green's organization, Mentoring Positives, is a nonprofit working in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood to serve at-risk youth.

He was pretty overwhelmed.

“I couldn't stop crying. It was tears of joy. It was tears of thinking about my mom,” he said. “People don’t understand how hard it is to put this on the line to help people.”

The award was a long time coming for Green, who formed Mentoring Positives in 2004 after he lost his mother, who was just 46 at the time, to breast cancer. Funding the organization has been a struggle at times — including a dispute with the city over what he considered an inequitable funding process — but the $175,000 gift is helping him envision a bigger future for the organization.

Forward Community Investments, a statewide community development organization that aims to reduce disparities, presented Green with an award named in memory of Nan Cheney, an ardent local peace activist. Forward provides support and financing for “on the ground” organizations that work for issues like affordable housing, economic development and social services.

Beth Cutler, president of the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, used the occasion to add her organization's $175,000 grant.

“I could not thank her enough; I hope I didn’t break her back giving her a hug,” Green said, laughing.

Mentoring Positives draws kids in with basketball, and provides referral-based mentoring and life lessons for area kids. Green grew up poor in Gary, Indiana, without a father-figure, but benefited from the presence of his high school basketball coach, he told Isthmus in 2014. After his mother’s death, Green and his wife Becky decided to launch a mentoring program, naming the organization in honor of his mother’s initials: M. P.

Green’s also passionate about teaching urban agriculture and entrepreneurship to kids. Mentoring Positives produces Off the Block salsa, now sold in Metcalfe’s Markets, Willy Street Co-ops and the Regent Street Co-op. It started as a fundraising effort and, as the name suggests, a way to keep kids off the streets. The group is now working on Off the Block pizza and is a potential Madison Public Market vendor.

Finding funds for Mentoring Positives has often been a struggle, especially when he first started, Green said, although he was supported by grants and donations along the way.

“It was just really a stressful time for me and my family,” he said. “I have a family here, and I’m doing community work, and we’re trying to provide for ourselves.”

“He’s been doing a lot of the work really, in many ways, pro bono. It’s been passion work. He understands the impact and difference it makes every day to these young men who live very disrupted lives,” said Annette Miller, who got to know Green during her time as emerging markets and community development director at Madison Gas and Electric.

Last year, Green applied for $149,999 from the city for youth employment programming, but was one of several community leaders of color who said the city discriminated against their organizations by shifting their applications to a different category. The leaders said the new category “classifies us as incompetent and individuals that lack the skills needed to provide the programs that we have been providing for multiple years.”

“I have put my life on the line to help youth in the community,” Green said at the time. “To be questioned on the work that I have done for 14 years is pretty disheartening, and it hurts because we put a lot of time and effort into working with kids.”

Eventually, Mentoring Positives was granted $36,375. So one of Green’s first thoughts when receiving the $175,000 grant, he said, was “somebody believes in us.”

“I’m just an optimistic person, and I always knew that we were going to continue to do the work regardless of what we got through that process,” Green said. “I will say that was probably one of the most inequitable, unjust funding processes that I have ever been a part of.”

But the city process motivated him to “really show them what we could do with resources in this community. So I am just elated.”

Green hasn’t finalized what he’s going to do with the money yet, but would love to expand his staff, which would free up some of his time as founder and executive director to do more networking. But the “ultimate goal,” Green said, would be to get Mentoring Positives its own building and “create an oasis right in Darbo.”

The organization is currently located in a small office in a Community Development Authority apartment, Green said, and it has outgrown that space. A bigger facility would allow them to serve more kids and families.

Miller said she was worried about Green burning out, but the CUNA grant will help make his organization sustainable. Many funders are hesitant to fund smaller, less-formalized entities like Mentoring Positives, she said, which makes CUNA’s work “special and disruptive and transformative.”

“Here is a major company saying they see the benefit of the work, they see the transformation that Will himself can make," she said.  

Green wanted to recognize the CUNA Mutual Foundation for taking a chance on him, and his family for supporting him over the years.

“This whole week has really just changed the game and activated me,” he said. “They have no idea the work we’re about to do with kids.”

After working for 14 years, the organization “could be on the downslide,” Green said, “but, man oh man, have I just got started.”