Letesha Nelson Takes the Reins at the Goodman Community Center

It’s All About Families

By Jonathan Gramling

During her career, Letesha Nelson has served in a variety of human service organizations across the United States.

While growing up and raising her children, Letesha Nelson stayed close to home in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park area. But as her kids, two boys and two girls, hit pre-adolescence and older, Nelson felt that it was time for her to spread her wings and fly.

“We moved,” Nelson said. “I did some time with AmeriCorps. I was a VISTA in Des Moines, Iowa at a little church there called Gatchel United Methodist. My job was to create an afterschool program and a food pantry for them that is still going on today. That community outreach spirit has been in me for as long as I can remember. It actually started when I was very young with my folks because they were community organizers and worked for social service agencies in Milwaukee.”

However, it was the Girls Scout movement that really allowed Nelson to spread her wings, working in four geographical areas across the United States over a 17 year period.

“My kids got very used to it, moving around with the Girls Scouts,” Nelson said. “Both of my daughters were troop leaders. The Girl Scouts is in our blood. When I decided to leave Girl Scouts, it was really due to an awakening in myself that I wanted to get back to the grassroots work that a community brings and really get back to the impact that kind of work has. And so that’s what I did. I was a little afraid, I have to say. I was afraid of leaving Girl Scouts because I thought for a very long time that’s what I was supposed to be doing and that was the only thing that I could do. My skills that I had acquired there tied me to the organization and I couldn’t break away. And I had been working on myself internally and just came to the point that I could either stay there or do what I did when I left Milwaukee. I could spread my wings, as scary as that might be and just put myself out there.”

Nelson landed in Memphis, Tennessee at Children & Family Enrichment, a small non-profit. It was there that she learned about ACES, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and their impact on individuals and their families.

“It was doing some really great work around ACES and had this component around life-long learning, but also the mental health component that a family would need to strengthen their family dynamic,” Nelson said. “I spent the last two years there working with a group of people out of Idlewild Presbyterian Church. It was a really, really good experience. And it was small.”

The pandemic hit and much of the direct service programming shut down and Nelson worked on administrative matters. And then, while she was looking for a new job, it appeared that the new job was looking for her: executive director of the Goodman Community Center.

“I have some old friends who said to me, ‘Letesha, this will be a good job for you,’” Nelson said. “’You need to apply.’ They knew the desires of my heart to be really impactful. And so they sent this job to me. The job was supposed to close on Monday. I hadn’t looked at it and I said, ‘You’re not really looking. Don’t even apply. Don’t worry about it.’ And so I didn’t. The close date and their preferred date came and went. I didn’t think about it anymore. And then I got a call from someone saying, ‘Did you apply for that job.’ I said No and the application date closed. And then my curiosity got the better of me. I went back on and it was still open. I just took that as a sign that I needed to apply and at least go through the process. And that’s what I did.”

It took six months for Nelson to transition to the Goodman Community Center. She has had the benefit of transitioning with Becky Steinhoff who had directed the center for 31 years and built it into the mega-center it is today.

“Becky has been super gracious and helpful during this transition,” Nelson said. “She and I stay in communication with one another. And she has also been for me just a guide in this process of transition. I think that because she and I are connected, that is good. We’re starting to build a really good relationship. And it’s nice to have that communication with her to really understand what her vision for Goodman was because as a person, I want to be a good steward of what the vision and mission of Goodman is, but also to be able to bring my own perspective around that mission and vision too.”

And while recognizing and applauding Steinhoff’s legacy, Nelson knows that she has to have her own vision on where the Goodman Community Center needs to go based on the foundation that exists at Goodman. Nelson is learning rapidly about the minutiae of the center with a $6-$7 million budget, 107 full and part-time staff who serve thousands upon thousands of people each year. And she has three prime areas that she will focus on during her first year as executive director.

“I have three big things that I have been thinking about since getting here,” Nelson said. “One of them is continuing to build our staff and give them the tools and resources that they need to do their job very well. The staff is at the top of my list of things to do. There is a sense of hunger within them that tells me that I have to make sure that I have something to provide to them. I talk to them about being experts in their field and I have to make sure that happens. Professional development and building the staff up to match what is happening to what Becky grew the place is one of my first priorities.”

The second priority is that while the center serves many youth, Nelson wants to make sure they are going somewhere
when they leave the center’s programming.

“The second is we have college and career readiness right now within our program for older youth,” Nelson said. “While it is small in terms of what we do, it has infinite possibilities. We really want to expand on that program in a way that is not only beneficial to our students here, but we also want to do that based on what our staff expertise is and also community expertise. But we want to expose them to areas of growth around finishing high school, getting into college if that is what they want, but also saying to them if they aren’t ready to go to college after high school, then there are other opportunities that are out there for them to get some skills and learn some trades and different things like that. But that college and career readiness is really, really important for our youth so that they can have better opportunities they may think are out there or have been presented to them.”

And the third priority is making sure that the whole family is moving to a better place together and that no one is left behind.

“My third area that goes along with that is parent engagement,” Nelson said. “That is so key. I’ve been telling people since I got here that Goodman is standing in the gap for a lot of families by having programs for their children and doing virtual learning, figuring out how to do that during COVID and then we’ve been dealing with any kind of food disparity. We’ve been handling a lot of that through our food pantry and the meals that we prepare every single week. But we would like to expand more than that to our families. Having a gateway to financial literacy and then them being connected to better jobs if they want to or better learning if they want that as well. If they want college readiness, we would offer that to them as well. That parent engagement piece is near and dear to my heart. And I think it is the piece that we have not tapped into the way that we want to. The other thing that goes along those same lines is that with the parent engagement piece, we are currently working with ANESIS to promote mental health. We do that with our young children and our teachers right now. They do training and exercises with them. It will be nice because of ANESIS and those adverse childhood experiences that a lot of families don’t even realize, that they are not aware of, if we can expand on what we do with ANESIS around that work with our families is important. That is going to take us having a very strong base with parent engagement to do that. I almost want to lead the charge in parent engagement because I remember growing up and being at 38th Street School at the time. It was an open education opportunity for me and my sisters. I just remember my folks being a part of what was happening with that learning. That was key in pushing us ahead. And I think while we are standing in the gap, how much better would it be for their parents to be alongside them, the youth that we serve here, and then partner with our staff to make sure that the outcome that they want to see for their children is there, and an outcome for them as well.”

Nelson has a broad vision for the Goodman Community Center so that the entire community can stretch its wings and fly.

“I want Goodman to be the place where the whole family is served, where they know it, where they trust it, where they have staff who are also rising with them,” Nelson said. “I want it to be a place where you can get everything that you need or we will find out how to get it for you. I want us to have new and innovative programming in five years around STEM, programs built around parent engagement, whether that be a boys and men program or girls and women program. I want us to be based around advocacy that is out there in the forefront that the youth are a part of and can help drive because they are our future. I just want us to be known — and I’ve gotten this from so many people — by people who know our work. I want people to continue to know the work and understand the work and come in and chip in and help with the work, not just with dollars. Sweat equity is just as good as dollars. And I just want to have really good partnerships within the community.   want us to be like no other in the community.”

Fly Goodman fly!