Will Green isn't just open when talking about his life. He's emotional and grateful. Even when he talks about growing up in Gary, Indiana, where he didn't have much, including electricity. Especially when he talks about his mother, Muriel Pipkins, who made sure he was able to live out his dreams as a standout basketball player, attend college and make something of himself.
That’s why the 15th anniversary celebration of Green's organization, Mentoring Positives, promises to be poignant. Expect good stories, good people and genuine feelings at the Discovery Center on Nov. 16. In its 15 years, the organization has developed programming for youth that includes leadership training, sports and community service. They have also embraced urban agriculture and created two products — salsa and frozen pizza — under the Off The Block brand.
During the celebration, Madison School Board President Gloria Reyes and Derek Johnson, of UW-Madison's Diversity Affairs Office, will receive awards for their community service. Both grew up in the Darbo-Worthington Neighborhood, home to Mentoring Positives.
For Reyes, Darbo will always be home and she is proud of the work Mentoring Positives has been doing.
"I think Will Green has done amazing work for Darbo with Mentoring Positives," Reyes said. "I wish he was around when I was a kid running around Darbo. It was so needed to have mentors and support people to guide us and provide us with opportunities for support. And that's what he does. I'm so proud of the work he does and I'm just so honored to be recognized. Darbo is my home. It's a community that we haven't invested a lot in and Will has just done whatever has been needed to ensure that kids are engaged and are really just exposed to opportunities that they otherwise wouldn't have."
Most of the success Green has achieved in 15 years of work is anecdotal.
Green recalled a kid he’d been working with who didn’t really want to come at first. But as he worked with the boy, he was able to steer him in a new direction. Green said he was driving down the street and spotted the kid, now a young adult — 19 or 20 — with a group of peers. In full view of everyone, Green said the young man shouted, “Love you, Will Green!” at his car as he drove by.
Green was impressed that a young man was willing to make such a heartfelt statement while hanging out with friends.
“Think about that, for a young black male to be showing love and appreciation in front of his peers,” Green said. “The impact is real. Even kids I haven’t been working with — kids on the outside — I even see those kids in the community and they’ll be like, ‘Man, you still doing that work?’ So oftentimes people who are doing negative things in the community still can have an appreciation for those doing positive things.”
The anniversary celebration promises to be just like his story of the young man showing appreciation.
“This year we plan to have mentees who I was working with when they were like 10-years old,” Green said, recalling a young man who used to wonder why Green would get upset over problems in the neighborhood, like robberies or car thefts. "Now that he’s 22, 23-years old and has kids of his own, now he gets upset too. So it’s like planting those seeds and reaping the rewards of those people trying to change the community.”
Today, Mentoring Positives is still perfecting its brand of pizza. The salsa-making program that made Green famous is still going strong and, lately, he has had kids embarking on a jewelry-making program.
There are plans to sell the food products in the Madison Public Market when it opens and the jewelry is a way to help bring revenue into the non-profit of Mentoring Positives.
But what about the next 15 years? For Green, the future looks exactly like his anecdotes about the two former mentees he talked about. As they grow into adulthood, Green wants to see them continue that work in the lives of the next generation.
He also sees gentrification coming Darbo’s way and wants to make sure that no one in the community is left behind.
“Darbo is a place that’s really going to be developed here in the next few years and we really want to be a player in that development,” Green said. “We really want to have a major stake in that community of creating a space for people living in Darbo so they are incorporated into that space. A neighborhood plan has been developed. I want a place where people can walk across the street and have jobs, have social services, have home ownership. How can we create a community where people can have some home ownership instead of high rises? I foresee us really trying to acquire our own space. Right now we’re utilizing other people’s spaces. We’ll have our own space.”