|Justice Castañeda was born in the same year, 1979, that
Common Wealth Development was established
in the Williamson Street area.
Justice Castañeda Leads
CommonWealth into a Citywide Era
By Jonathan Gramling
As we sit in his CommonWealth Development office on the east end of
Williamson Street, Justice Castañeda has a calm presence while we talk. He
has refreshing candor as he talks about his childhood growing up in Madison.
It seems that he has the attitude of “it is what it is” and accepts himself for
who he is and owns all of it, his rough childhood, his service in the U.S.
Marine Corps and rotation in Iraq and the master’s degree in Policy,
Organization and Leadership Studies from Stanford University and a master’s
degree in City Planning with a concentration on Housing, Community and
Economic Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In some ways, Castañeda had his Malcolm X moment when he entered the U.
S. Marine Corps. For the first time in his life, he lived in a very structured
environment and had time on his hands to read and reflect.
“The Marine Corps takes folks from the nooks and crannies of society,”
Castañeda said. “Many of us have had to think about basic needs 90 percent
of our day. They say, ‘Look here. You don’t have to worry about basic needs anymore.’ And all of a sudden, you can get folks who otherwise
have not been able to operate in these different academic arenas and they can operate in phenomenal capacity. So all of a sudden, I started
going to school in the military and I just started getting straight As from that point on. They have satellite campuses, community colleges. I
started out with Central Texas College, just taking a bunch of classes. I got an associate’s degree in general studies.”
Castañeda did a rotation in Iraq in 2004 and saw action.
“I was a security team leader,” Castañeda said. “We were ambushed and I got my combat action ribbon. But I don’t think it was like what
others went through. I remember going through a lot of anxiety and a lot of down time and a lot of explosions. We got sustained mortar attacks
for 44 days. It was more unnerving than anything else. We got into little ambushes where we got our combat action ribbon. I think my strength
as a Marine was in my administration and personnel and operations, the planning part of it more so than being the operator. I worked and
supported and worked along with some amazing individuals. And I am very proud of that.”
He left the Marine Corps and came back to Madison. But the timing wasn’t right and he hadn’t been gone long enough. While he was able to
eventually get some entry-level jobs, Castañeda wasn’t feeling good about things. He reenlisted in the Marine Corps and spent the next four
years at Camp Pendleton and securing an undergraduate degree from UC-San Diego. He stayed in San Diego when he left the Marine Corps for
good and worked as a teacher at a high school.
“I learned a great deal about schools and education,” Castañeda said. “But I think I also learned about patience. I was 28-years-old. I had this
military experience and I was chomping at the bit to really actualize things. Everything sucks and you’re the one with the idea. And a lot of
those ideas that you have are actually very old. ‘I have an idea man for community schooling.’ ‘Yeah right. I know we wrote about that back in
Over the next 6-7 years, Castañada worked on national projects including President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and
earned two master’s degrees. He spent time in Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s office doing research for his master’s thesis. And he began to
look at the problems that young African Americans experience not as a personal responsibility issue in which the youth have deficits that need
to be cured, but more as a public health issue.
“When I saw some of the work that the public health workers were doing, mainly nurses, I was thinking that we were approaching a lot of
these problems wrong,” Castañeda said. “We needed to ask this other question. Let’s ask, ‘Why does being poor make you sick’ and let’s start
addressing that. And does being poor have to make you sick? Let’s see where we go with that. With that, I received a fellowship at the Medical
Center at UC-San Francisco to go study what people call trauma. But I was looking at toxic stress and the role that toxic stress plays in both
immune systems and your health and in cognitive development in children. And I was able to go study with Howard Pinderhughes who does
some phenomenal work around violence as a public health issue and framing it as a public health issue and not criminalizing it in the same