Will Green, of Mentoring Positives

Will Green says some activists or nonprofits swing through challenged neighborhoods to offer children programming once or twice a month. But to really heal children navigating poverty, drugs, bullying, and the juvenile justice system, he thinks you need to be there every day.

For the past 14 years, Green and his youth mentorship nonprofit Mentoring Positives have had their doors open to young people in the Darbo Worthington neighborhood. Through playing basketball, going on field trips, and lately through the making of salsa and pizza, Green has been trying to provide a space where young people can find a source of positivity while learning new skills.

Lately, Green has been feeling frustrated by what he sees as a lack of support from the city of Madison for his work. He’s among a group of black nonprofit leaders who have recently criticized officials with the Community Development Division over how the agency has allocated job training program funding.

Green said it’s time for Madison to cast support beyond the usual suspects, and take a chance on an “outside the mold” group like his that’s taking a bottoms-up, grassroots approach to helping youth.

Let's go back to 2003, when Mentoring Positives began. Why did you start it?

I had been working with kids a number of years, kids who were high-risk youth. You know, getting in trouble, dealing with the criminal justice system. I was a supervision counselor. Kind of a probation officer for kids.

I come from Gary, Indiana, and I’d seen a lot of poverty. We grew up just not having much. I had a great family, but I didn’t have much, to the point where I was in the house sometimes with no lights and no heat sometimes. I knew what the kids were going through, I knew how that felt. I don’t want kids to go through that.

When my mom passed (in 2003), I knew I couldn’t come back to Madison just sitting behind a desk, doing the work I was doing. I just figured I would create my own life, my own space, and start working with kids in the fashion and the way that I wanted to work with them. And that was build relationships with them, give them what they needed to be successful and basically be a good person.

What kind of a person was your mom like? It sounds like she had a big impact on your work.

She was just a special type of person. She only had a seventh-grade education. She worked at a nursing home. She loved those clients. There’s not a day that I didn’t hear a story about one of these clients she was working with.

She took care of a lot. I just remember her giving up a lot for other people. I remember a lot of kids staying in our home who didn’t have a place sometimes.

A lot of people don’t understand that I still deal with the loss of my mom. It’s kind of depressing. It’s hard to talk with people, and uplift them, and always cheer people to be who they are, while you’ve got this hole in your heart. It’s kind of like the weight of an elephant sitting on your heart every day.

Tell me about the kids you’re working with. What are they going through?

There might be 15 people in their household, in and out, in and out, in and out. They probably live in Darbo, a 2-bedroom apartment, not a lot of space at all — 600 or 700 feet.

They’re eating who knows where and when and what. They’re dealing with drugs and alcohol. They’re dealing with their parents having unhealthy relationships with individuals. They’re watching them smoking and drinking — so if you tell them it’s not cool, it is cool, ‘cause they see it in their house.

You have all these negative things they’re bouncing off of. I want to wrap them up and give them the protective coat they need to defend and deflect those things.

A lot of people have different ideas about how to reach out to youth. What do you think are the important ingredients of mentorship?

The hook is the key. Basketball is a hook. That, right there, engages kids. They like it, it’s fun for them. Then we teach around that. We teach life lessons.

Food’s another. If you’re kids cutting up vegetables, and measuring stuff out cups and stuff, they’re learning skills. They like it. We have a fun environment. You’ve got to keep it fun for the kids, man, If you’re not keeping it fun, you’re going to lose them.

Speaking of food, one of the main fixtures of Mentoring Positives is the Off the Block program. What is it, and what's its status?

Recently, I went through a sustainability leadership program at Edgewood College and found out about urban agriculture. Then white activist came through the neighborhood, saying we’ve got to get these kids doing something. He was into the food movement, and he was like, 'We need to get the kids making salsa.' So I was like, let’s make salsa.

Next thing I know, we had kids that was in my basketball group growing peppers and tomatoes. We got a kitchen at the Salvation Army approved. We were always making our salsa in there after our basketball group. We would stay up there until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Holy Cross Lutheran Church gave us an acre of land. We called it the edible acre. We were growing everything on it — beans, tomatoes.       

Tim Metcalfe gave me a call and said he wanted it at Metcalfe's supermarkets. And so Off the Block was formed. The kids gave it the name — they wanted to call it Off the Block, because they wanted to get off the block.

We’re planning on doing a production of pizza, 200 a month, starting next year. Right now I have an individual going through the MarketReady program for the Public Market. We’ll hopefully be selling hot slices of pizza in the public market come 2019.

Regarding the recent controversy over job funding, tell me more about what you think folks aren’t getting.

It’s just a disconnect in a lot of different agencies. You’ve got city planning here, you’ve got (Community Development Division) over here. How well is that communication happening to connect the dots? You have funding that comes around in different ways, and the same people get it. No one’s really connecting dots, and saying, “Hey, they’ve got $850,000 the other day. Now we’re going to give them another $100,000.”

I do things different. That’s what we in Madison need to start looking at. It’s 2017, and we got 300,000 people in this city. “The tale of two cities” — with the minds and brains and resources we have here, we can’t fix that? Come on, man. What are we doing here?

We’ve talked a lot about Mentoring Positives, but you also coach girl’s basketball at La Follette High School?

I took that job last summer. I wanted to do a lot more high-school age girls programming. I’ve seen toxic relationships with girls, outside the Xs and Os of basketball. They’re getting preyed on by our boys. They just go through a lot of self-esteem issues from what boys put them through. I work with Kelly Parks Snider, from Project Girl. She’s helping getting the girls rallied together through art.

They don’t know how happy I am they chose me for that job. I love the game of basketball. I love the way my old coach taught me the game of basketball, as life.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.