As Mother’s Day approaches, it is always a tender and powerful time of year for Will Green. The presence of Muriel Pipkins, his mother, never truly leaves him but is especially poignant around this time of year.
The images that Will associates with her linger no matter how much time passes. How she was when he didn’t have even basic things in life like electricity or heat. How she was when he was a basketball standout growing up. How she encouraged him to pursue his dreams even on the darkest, coldest nights when everything was shut off.
And, finally, how she was as she succumbed to breast cancer when he was a young man.
Will’s organization, Mentoring Positives, pays homage to the initials of his mother and Will has at times practically single-handedly kept afloat the goals, hopes and dreams of youth in one of Madison’s most difficult areas, the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood.
The spectacular view of Lake Monona as a panorama in the background, the plush surroundings of the Monona Terrace Convention Center and the buttoned-up class of the Forward Community Investments awards ceremony bore a stark contrast to the trenches Will Green has served in around Madison.
Just looking around the room provided enough context and contrast. Inside the Monona Terrace were youth whose lives Will Green touched as they proudly manned a station serving his now renowned Off The Block Salsa.
So by the time Will Green stepped to the podium to receive the Nan Cheney March For Justice award on Thursday night it had already been an emotional, tough and at times surprising 14 years worth of running Mentoring Positives and being as authentic as it gets in the lives of at-risk youth.
That’s why it was fitting that Will’s acceptance of this award from Forward Community Investments wouldn’t be any less of a roller-coaster than the rest of his life has been.
As host Ananda Mirelli got the event underway with remarks about the work Will Green has done in the community, she promised that there would be a series of surprises in store for Will before it was time to accept his award. And there were!
First, Mayor Paul Soglin declared May 3 “Will Green Day” in the City of Madison. Mayor Soglin said that Will Green offers young people kindness and a means to transcend beyond their present circumstances. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin delivered a prepared statement as well.
“I am inspired by the work you have done to mentor Wisconsin youth, especially youth of color,” Baldwin said to Green. “Your authentic interactions with more than 2,500 kids is a testament to Nan Cheney’s legacy. You are demonstrating how these young men and women can reach their full potential. Nan’s values of courage and passion are evident in all you do. I need to let you know I am a big fan of your Off The Block Salsa! Thank you for your many contributions to our community.
The Nan Cheney March for Justice award is a $15,000 financial award given to an individual who is relentless in their pursuit of justice. Nan Cheney showed courage during the Civil Rights Movement, in particular, being willing to leave her family behind to travel to Selma to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, into a violent torrent of racial unrest.
Forward Community Investments president Salli Martinyak presented Will with the $15,000 award which, because of the generosity of donor Helene Nelson, would actually be $20,000 this year.
“Will Green is receiving this award for many reasons, far too numerous to mention,” Martinyak said. “He sees a better life for young men and women because his mother planted a seed of opportunity for Will and now he does the same for others. This check goes to Will in order to support the work he’s doing.”
CUNA Mutual Foundation simultaneously presented Will with a surprise award of its own, donating $175,000 to Mentoring Positives so that it can build capacity to continue fostering positive outcomes for youth.
“This whole day is about our moms,” Green said as he took the podium. “The legacy of Nan Cheney lives on. I am honored to have this award. I just wanna give back. I found that I needed to turn my pain into passion. The capacity building is what we needed. And my team, we will take it to the next level. CUNA Mutual has started a new path today in this city. We’re just getting started. No matter what, we will continue the good fight.”
For the past 14 years Will has been on the front lines of the good fight. Whether it is raising the self-esteem of the girls he coaches at LaFollette High School, baking salsa or pizza with youths, fighting to have a place of his own to use as a youth center, or bravely walking the streets with former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray when things got tense with youth in Madison, Will Green has always just been real.
“There’s three entities that have really helped youth,” Wray told the audience. “Operation Fresh Start, NIP (Neighborhood Intervention Program), Will Green. The first two are entire organizations. Will Green is just one man. He’s been an unsung hero. He is a Young People Whisperer. He’s authentic. He’s a grassroots footsoldier.”
Wray said that when he was police chief and it came time to find someone to help turn around the turbulent times developing between youth and the city, Will Green’s name was the first one on the mouths of police officers in Madison.
And Will Green didn’t exactly shrug off being called a Youth Whisperer. But, since it was now literally his day in Madison, he deserved to bask in the glory of the work he’s so tirelessly done.
“We have to build relationships with youth,” Green said. “You gotta slow down in this work and take time to meet people where they are. We’ve gotta be able to offer individuals something. Give them some pride in something and get them involved in our community. We’re going to have to like get down and dirty to find solutions for youth in this city. I want to work with the grimiest youth in this city because I know we can change them. It’s authentic work. There’s nothing fake about this work.”