Letesha Nelson is growing community at Goodman

The center's executive director and grandmother of 10 has found a second family at the Goodman Community Center.
Letesha Nelson3
Photo by Romulo Ueda
Letesha Nelson

Letesha Nelson was sitting in the kitchen of her home in Mississippi — just over the state line from Memphis, where she worked — when a phone call from Madison changed her life.

It was December 2020. The caller was Souphaphone Maddox, president of the board of directors of the Goodman Community Center in Madison.

Maddox offered Nelson the center’s executive director position following Becky Steinhoff’s decision to step down after 31 years in the job.

Letesha Nelson

Letesha Nelson (Photo by Romulo Ueda)

“I almost died,” Nelson says, remembering the call. “Not because I thought I wasn’t strong enough or didn’t have the ability to do it. I just couldn’t believe that Madison and Goodman picked me. I was overjoyed.”

Nelson assumed her new position the following month, January 2021, amid an unrelenting pandemic, the ongoing civic unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

What she saw from the staff at Goodman — where the ambitious community-improvement programming serves more than 35,000 people annually, everyone from preschoolers to seniors, and includes a food pantry — both cheered and humbled her.

“If they could have smiles on their faces and have that much energy and commitment to the work at hand,” Nelson says, “my hope was I could be an added benefit and help them in impacting lives.”
More than a year and a half later, Nelson finds reason to celebrate Goodman’s successes while acknowledging significant challenges.

“Goodman is something special,” she says. “I go home some days feeling I can’t believe I work there, at a place that wants voices heard and advocates for those who can’t advocate for themselves, while empowering those who want to advocate for themselves to do that.”

Letesha Nelson1

Letesha Nelson (Photo by Romulo Ueda)

The challenges?

“What I foresee as my biggest challenge is people not supporting us financially in the way they used to,” Nelson says. “We have some wonderful supporters. But with COVID, there was a lot of relief funds to help us through. Now we’re on the other side — we think — of COVID. So I worry about that a bit.”

Nelson also hopes to expand Goodman’s programming to address a gap: the post-high school teens (ages 18-21) whom they’d previously been serving. “Until they figure out their direction,” she says.

And she wants to make certain her colleagues working at Goodman are paid a living wage. “Huge for me,” Nelson says.

It would not be a stretch to say Nelson was born for this role. Her parents both worked for the community-focused Social Development Commission in Milwaukee. Nelson saw them advocating for people in need of energy assistance or helping those with food insecurity.

When a young Black Milwaukee man named Ernest Lacy died in police custody in 1981 — in a manner dismayingly similar to George Floyd’s death four decades later — Nelson, not yet a teen, marched with her parents in protest.

“That participation as a young girl was crucial to who I am now,” she says.

Nelson’s mother was a teen mom, and she counseled her daughter, who was doing well in school, not to follow suit.

“She was hard on me about boys,” Nelson says. “And here I got pregnant.”

She was 16. And though three more children followed, Nelson eventually earned her high school diploma and then a college degree in business. It was anything but easy.

“Watching me,” Nelson says, “my children decided they were going to finish high school. So I have four high school graduates and three college graduates.”

Letesha Nelson2

Letesha Nelson (Photo by Romulo Ueda)

Nelson began a long professional association with the Girl Scouts of the USA before finishing college. It would eventually take her to Girl Scouts jobs in half a dozen cities, where she worked her way up the leadership ladder over more than 17 years. She credits Girl Scouts with helping her recognize the strength of “the girl-woman community” and for “seeing something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself,” she says.

Nelson credits her second husband, Henry Nelson, for his willingness to uproot their lives and travel to fill the various Girl Scouts roles, confident he could land a manufacturing job while she pursued her dream. “He sees the best part of me,” she says.

Nelson left the Girl Scouts and spent two years working as executive director of Children and Family Enrichment at Idlewild in Memphis, which is where she was when a friend mentioned the job opening at the Goodman Center.

Nelson knew Madison a bit from her years in Milwaukee.

“As a little girl I remember coming to the Capitol, and to the lakes,” she says. “My dad was a big fisherman. And before he had sons, I was his son. I would come on fishing trips.”

The last time Nelson had been to Madison prior to coming to Goodman, she was working with the Girl Scouts in Milwaukee and brought her four grandchildren to spend a day at Henry Vilas Zoo. Nelson, who turned 52 in August, continues to hold regular “grandma weeks” — though now the number of grandchildren is 10.

What does she tell those grandchildren?

“That they can reach for the stars,” she says.

It’s similar to what she tells her colleagues and those she serves at Goodman, which makes sense. “They feel very much like family to me.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison.

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