Howard Hayes is the assistant director of youth and community development at Goodman Community Center in Madison, WI, and Arthur Morgan is the family advocacy manager. Together, they are helping Madison’s youth succeed through the thriving Lussier LOFT Teen Center, which offers after-school and summer programs for middle school and high school aged youth. Children’s Funding Project CEO Elizabeth Gaines worked with Hayes and Morgan early in her career when she led some of the after-school and community-based youth programs at Goodman Community Center. She recently spoke with the two leaders about their ongoing work at the community center, the needs and challenges youth face, and creative ways communities can support young people. You can watch the full video interview and read an edited version of their conversation below.



Gaines: When I think back on our time working together—almost 30 years ago now—I have an idea in my head about some of the issues young people faced back then. How are things different for youth now and what issues have remained constant?

Hayes: I can speak from an elementary perspective and Arthur can probably talk more on middle and high school. At that time, I was doing an elementary after-school program called Safe Haven. I was one of the youth workers who coordinated day-to-day activities. Back then, one of the things that we had was an influx of folks from Chicago, specifically African American as well as a large Hmong population. The city was still trying to get their footing on two populations that were trying to settle here in Madison. One of the things that we did was try to give them a stable foundation with our programming, as well as coordinating with schools. We were trying to do a lot of stuff around education, trying to get their trust in the school. Specifically, the Hmong population really delved into school and looked at education as a viable way of getting out. A lot of these people who moved up here came from larger cities where the school system failed them. The lack of trust in the school system played a big part in our role as the hub between them and the school.

Now, we really want to focus on their families and how they maneuver in this city. Now that they are in the schools and moving through them, we want to focus on getting their parents more resources to give youth a more stable household.

Morgan: One of the biggest differences I see now is access to information for our young people. Access to information isn’t always good, right? In middle and high school, one of the biggest issues is that our kids are too smart for their own good. There used to be a cloud over young people, where adults would have conversations about adult stuff while the kids were in another room. Now, there’s none of that. So these young people are hearing and seeing the same things that adults are seeing but they’re still told to be kids.

So one of the toughest obstacles that we face is to try to help kids decipher what they’re seeing and hearing. Every life event that happens they see a million times a day. As people we tend to take all of these things, positive and negative, and shape how we think about things and how we live. Young people see these and have to make their decisions super fast. We’re giving them the keys to the car but they have no idea how to drive, they don’t even know how to get in the car. As adults, we have to slow down. We’re trying to do things way too fast, giving kids something and telling them to decipher it later. It’s just not working.

People always ask, how have you worked with kids for so long? I don’t work with kids. I work for kids. I’ve worked with youth for 30 years because it’s a calling. Historically, if kids are wilding out, then adults are the ones that are supposed to be keeping them in line. It’s the opposite now. Adults are doing all these things and kids are trying to figure it out while we’re shoving stuff down their throats that they have no idea what to do with it. We’re giving kids adult capabilities and they can’t even walk down the street by themselves. We’re not being realistic with what we’re trying to give to these kids.

After COVID, my job has been super heavy. Our kids were in the middle of the debate whether COVID even existed. When you had presidents and grown people that you’re supposed to look up to that were arguing and literally fighting, that was one of the worst times as an adult where we did not do well. It’s an example of how we’ve been damning our kids.

Gaines: That leads to my next question. We know that youth mental health has become a growing concern for families, schools, and service providers. What are your observations, and can you share what seems to be working to support young people?

Hayes: The internet is an unstoppable force. As of right now, adults aren’t really meeting youth where they’re at. Youth are really reaching out and trying to find other places. As much negative as there is out there, youth are finding viable affirming spaces within TikTok and other social media outlets where they can say, “Hey, I’m OK for who I am.”

There’s a big push for social-emotional learning, which plays a part in what we do as a nonprofit and how we connect with youth during the day. That gives us access to the schools. If they see youth exhibiting more challenging behaviors, that’s where they see us stepping in. Now, with the focus on SEL [social-emotional learning], the schools want us there.

Now whenever you meet a new principal and say, “Hey I’m Howard from Goodman Community Center,” they say, “We’ll see you tomorrow.” We’re like, “Hold up, hold up!” Let’s make sure this is intentional and purposeful. They’re giving us an opportunity to bring in our resources and go toward a more community-based model.

Morgan: One of the things that we get to see is we get to see kids being kids every day. Even the toughest kid in the world is vulnerable, something I get to see. That’s so special. To walk into a school and to have the youth and the teachers and the principal greet you at the door is something super special. We have the relationship with the kids that a lot of the teachers don’t have. A lot of times when the kids leave the schools, we let them vent about teachers they have an issue with. We want them to come to the center and talk to us about it because we can figure out how they can go back to that school and talk with that teacher in a respectful way.

The internet is not all negative. We’re not going to stop the internet. We get to have real conversations with our kids. Some of the subjects that we touch on, I think that a lot of adults shy away from or run away from. I’ll give you an example. I always tell adults when working with kids or talking to them that you have to listen. Because a lot of times as adults, as soon as a young person starts telling a story and says something wild that you think they shouldn’t say, adults jump in and tell them they’re wrong. I’ll let the kid ride out the whole story because I need to know where you are. I need to meet you where you’re at and know what you’re thinking in that situation. Then I can meet you where you’re at.

We don’t work with youth to make them robots and do the things we need them to do when they’re around us. We work with them so that when they’re out in the real world and have to make decisions, they may think about something we said. When they’re out with friends doing stupid stuff, I need that one kid to take 10 or 20 seconds to think about what I told them before. A lot of adults will just tell them, “Don’t do that.” When I was a teenager and an adult cut me off like that, I was trying to get away from them. So when I left that conversation with that adult, I wouldn’t think about what you said. A lot of that is just adults being too adult. Calm down and let the story ride out.

Kids also aren’t the same as the kids that you were. You may have done something like this, but you didn’t do what these kids are doing. You weren’t thinking how they were thinking.

Gaines: This is sometimes a thankless job. What does the youth workforce need? What do the folks who are doing this kind of job every day need from the broader community and country?

Hayes: I would say perspective. We have such a small African American population, as well as other groups of minorities. They’re here but they’re not visible. I originally moved here from Georgia and one of the biggest things that got me here were adults that weren’t like me. They were consistently around me and gave me a deeper understanding of other options of what I could be. Now, we see a lot of kids falling into stereotypes from the internet, negative stereotypes reinforced by their feeds of who you can be and who you are and the direction that your life is going to go. To come into direct contact with other folks can supersede that. We need folks in the community who come in and are from a wide variety of backgrounds.

We currently have a lot of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” type brothers and the kids just aren’t hearing that. There’s a disconnect between the people who come in and say, “I want to teach the kids how to tie a tie.” The kids want to be able to just connect with you and not have someone come in and do something for them. They want someone to do something with them.

Gaines: That’s where your expertise comes in. You all have figured out what actually works and have perfected that over time.That skill needs to be acknowledged as such and compensated appropriately. It’s a career that needs nurturing and developing.

Morgan: I think we’re getting a little more respect. Some of the teachers and principals and school districts are starting to see what we can bring to them. I would love to have money to run programs and in my pocketbook for what I’m doing. But at the same time, every day I get to see that I’m blessed. I’ve worked in the same neighborhood on the same side of the city for 30 years. A lot of people don’t get to see what I can see.

I went to a school before winter break and the assistant principal in the school was in our programs. I went to a couple of basketball games and the basketball coaches were in our programs. I can’t think of a school in Madison where we don’t have someone from Goodman. Money is cool but I can’t explain the feeling that you get when somebody I had 20 years ago walks up with a young person and is like, “Hey, this is my son.” Some of the toughest kids that I had still keep in touch with me now because they figured it out. They realized that when I was getting on them, it wasn’t just about that day and that I’m obnoxious when they’re doing something positive as when they’re doing something negative.

I think the teachers and the principals are starting to get it. I think we’re helping a lot of teachers get it. Howard and I know that when a kid does something, there’s something behind that. We can work with the families in the homes and talk to the kids and have real conversations. I think that some of these teachers are actually starting to listen when we walk into their classrooms and we’re talking to them about these individual kids.I think they’re really starting to see the relationship that we have with these youth and seeing the benefits. I think that those conversations are helping them in the classroom as well.

I think if we could have this conversation on every YouTube channel, a lot of people would get it and think, “Oh snap, that’s how I feel.” Our accountant used to grab food out of our refrigerator, and I coached him in sixth grade. He was one of our first summer camp kids that I ever had. And now he’s our accountant. To see those young people doing that, that’s really what we do it for.

Gaines: If you could invest in one thing to support young people right now, what would it be?

Hayes: Invest in their curiosity. That speaks to who they see themselves as and how you see them. They may be acting up in class, but what’s behind that? They have that one time when they’re vulnerable and say what they want to be. That’s when you see them and can help them get there. Once that happens, a whole bunch of options really open up. You see them, not as the person who’s doing the same thing as their peers, but the person who as an individual has goals and aspirations and visions. Once you get to that, they’ll pull you aside every now and then and be like, “Hey, did you happen to check out on that, you know?”

Morgan: My perfect thing would be to build my own community center attached to a high school. So we could have everything we have at Goodman but also the full capabilities of a school. There’s a bunch of stuff that we could use to help these kids but just don’t have the time for right now.

Gaines: Thanks Howard and Arthur. It’s been so good to reconnect with you both and hear about the amazing work you still do for the youth in Madison. The two of you really are pillars in the community and those young people are super lucky to have you!

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