At times, it’s mind-boggling to consider the things that have happened this year.
By Howard Hayes
At times, it’s mind-boggling to consider the things that have happened this year. This time last year I was listening to Bill Withers and hoping one day to see him in concert. Fast-forward to 2020 and I’m listening to the late Withers’ music to cope with a pandemic and the cruelties of racial injustice.
I am an educator at the Goodman Community Center, where we’ve been doing in-person programming four days a week (with limited youth) since June 22. I work with kids only a few years younger than 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado, in late-August 2019. McClain’s death, and the events that have occurred over the past few months, have given me a space to reflect. As a result, I feel a deeper connection with Black folks across this nation. This would not have happened without the courageous voices of the youth that lifted me up and told me about who he was.
During the school year, I manage a group of students’ academic caseloads and provide them with strategies and support to help improve their performance in the classroom. I work with each student in our program, as well as their family and their teachers, to help them set attainable SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely — goals. I run a cooking club, which studies regional cuisine in the United States and around the world, comparing and contrasting the techniques, seasonings and stories behind the food. I also organize a boys group called Men Always Seeking Change & Knowledge, or MASCK. Through the program, we examine masculinity in all its forms in order to better know and understand ourselves. In addition to my work in education and culture, I coordinate Garden Explorers, a program in which we visit different community gardens, school gardens and organizations that take a solutions-based approach to food insecurity in minority populations.
This may seem like a lot, but these programs represent just a handful of 12 enrichment options that youth have access to on a weekly basis in non-COVID-19 times. As inequities in our communities continue to create disparities that challenge our rights, we believe direct engagement and authentic human connection are the pillars of building young people with confidence and courage.
When Wisconsin issued its Safer at Home order in March, it had a devastating impact on my work at the Goodman Center. I recognized that the order would have a disproportionate impact on both low-income households and people of color. The first thing we chose to tackle was food insecurity. We started collaborating with local restaurants, food pantries and other services to distribute food to those in need. As far as programing went, we tried our best to imitate online what we would normally do in our courses and on our field trips. I continued to teach my cooking class and meet with students and the members of MASCK weekly. I also supported the food pantry by delivering meals on various routes.
As the pandemic wore on, we debated multiple options for programming, including virtual, hybrid and face-to-face instruction. By that time, the murder of George Floyd had sparked protests worldwide, and Amy Cooper had called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation) merely because he had asked her to put her dog on a leash in New York City’s Central Park. Our staff worked to process how to help our students through this time, while also trying to think of programming that would not further endanger the Black community. Our conversations were mainly about ways to teach our students how to keep their family, loved ones and community safe during these challenging times. We sent out a survey for families and participants, and settled on doing face-to-face programming — outside, weather permitting. We chose face-to-face for the same reason most educators would — because we were concerned for our students’ mental health. We canoe, go to the Goodman Pool, bike, visit parks and farm for produce used by our food pantry families, to name a few activities. Whether the kids feel supported by this community or not, we are always striving to remind them that they belong. Above all, we emphasize staying 6 feet apart and always wearing the masks we provide.
And now that we are nearing the end of summer, the F-35 yard signs have been replaced by Black Lives Matter signs and campaign signs for Assembly or Senate candidates. Just as important as it is to look to the future, it’s important for us to learn from our recent past. The youth have paved the way and we should follow. The streets have spoken. Let’s listen. As a community center, the best way for us to proceed is forward through collaboration. All the Black folks we saw standing alongside LGBTQ+ and Latinx folks, their fists raised in solidarity with Indigenous people, should serve as a lesson for all of us. As a community, it is our responsibility to use the obstacles of this impossible year as building blocks.
In the fall, our community center will be a space where kids who have struggled academically can receive not just additional help in academics, but the mental health resources they need to thrive. With limited funding, our center can’t achieve this solely with our staff — we need the public to show up now more than ever. We’ve known for a long time that our communities of color deserve better. This fall is when we show our youth what this city is truly made of.
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