CASTANEDA

Justice Castañeda is the executive director of Common Wealth.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

As the executive director of Madison's Common Wealth, Justice Castañeda, 37, oversees an organization that is involved in affordable housing development and management, youth and adult job training, business incubation and community engagement.

It's a unique operation and Castañeda brings to the job a unique life story and approach to his work. In a discussion with the Cap Times, Castañeda discussed his background, the organization's efforts in the Meadowood Neighborhood, where it will soon open a second office, and how the city can better support its community development organizations.

Were you born in Madison?

I was born at 23 N. Ingersoll St., at home.

And you grew up in Madison? Went to Madison schools?

I went to a lot of them. I moved a lot, like 19 times before I was 18 years old.

My academic career started at Red Caboose daycare center, graduated fifth grade at Mendota Elementary, graduated eighth grade from O’Keeffe Middle School and by the grace of God I graduated from East High School. As an educator, I realize I was probably somebody’s project. A teacher got together with a guidance counselor and said look, here’s this guy. Let’s try to figure out a way to get him across the stage. 

It turns out Madison is a really hard place to grow up as a person of color, boy of color in particular, but my father had a very strong network of people who wrapped their wings around me. As much as I had to deal with, I had this very strong orbit. 

And after high school, you went into the military?

I worked construction for a couple years. I was charged with a felony because when I was 18, I got into a fight at East High School and because two of the kids were 17, I was charged with physical abuse to a minor. It got dismissed. I think about it every day. If kids get into fights should they get felony charges? By the skin of my teeth I beat that charge, but I think about how my life would have been dramatically different with a felony because I wouldn’t have been able to get into the Marine Corps.

What did you get out of your service?

In the Marine Corps, all those basic needs are taken care of and you have time to reflect. I thought a lot about Madison and why I was so angry. It gave me space to approach education from a healthy space where I wasn’t worrying about things. I was able to take random classes. I had a lot of things to learn. I started liking school.

A couple lessons learned: Don’t go back to Madison. That’s 101. I still think that, for folks of color, if you can get out of here, stay out. Especially if you’re educated. You don’t realize it until you leave, but in Southern California where everyone looks like me, it was critical. So I stayed in San Diego. I started at UC-San Diego when I was still in the military. Going back to school when you’re 25, education like youth is wasted on the young. It’s a whole different experience. I got straight As, I got my degree and started working as a teacher’s apprentice in San Diego. I was teaching kids who reject the hypocrisy of mainstream educational processes and institutions. Call them what you will.

They told me you should think about grad school. I ended up going to Stanford for policy organization and leadership studies in the school of education. When I finished that Master’s degree, I didn’t feel like I was done. I then went on to MIT, on the GI Bill, and did another Master’s in city planning, looking at housing, community and economic development.

And you got pulled back to Madison.

I was looking for a case study and I just happened to know about Madison and how there’s been an inordinate amount of money put into things and, from every indicator, it’s only gotten worse, particularly for people of color here. How is that possible? I wrote a proposal to the mayor to come here and study this and I would do some work for him, but I was funded through MIT. This was 2012.

We looked at land use, including economic development, and family and children’s health. It was three years we worked on this. We came here, we stayed here, we rode the buses. I had a group and it was helpful they were not from Madison. I think there’s a lot that we take for gospel where someone from the outside would say, explain that to me. Explain why you think the center of the city is a place that’s not accessible to the majority. What’s the history of that? Who was able to own land there? How did they get access to it? We looked at not just organizations, but their boards. You find that it’s a very small group of people who have been making decisions for a long time.

People say Madison is 77 square miles surrounded by reality, but it’s really 77 square miles that epitomize reality. I was able to take this Madison work and put together a huge framework for community and economic development. I started doing consulting for foundations and think tanks around these national community development initiatives. Ninety percent of what I used came out of Madison.

And when did you start at Common Wealth?

It will be eight months on Oct. 1.

Common Wealth has purchased and rehabbed housing in the Meadowood neighborhood. What are your goals there?

I was working for the city when they started doing job training out there. They ended up buying buildings around Meadowood Park. Organizationally, people weren’t sure we should be working out there. The neighborhoods aren’t well designed out there. The low-income housing was not designed aesthetically for human beings.

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What do you mean by that?

Human beings respond to light. They are not well lit. And the air doesn’t move. People always want to know how you get kids to stop hanging out at the gas station and I say put benches in so they’re not standing in the thoroughfare. People disagree with that, so I say get some of your friends and on a 90-degree day, go spend a weekend in low-income housing. There’s no protective, defensible spaces like porches. Places for people to practice the art of parenthood.

Yahara View Apartments (Common Wealth’s building on East Main Street) is the only low-income housing project on the isthmus and nobody even knows it exists. Why is it different? It was made for human beings. The porches on the Meadowood buildings aren’t porches. They’re jump-off egress points that are for the fire code. That’s almost insulting.

What you’re looking at with housing rehab is, does the building have integrity to begin with? Are you creating housing for humans? Imagine what it’s like for people to fall in love there. To thrive there. Is that the housing we’re building? Build housing as if human beings matter, for children to grow up and fall in love.

And are you increasing the housing stock? We have a housing shortage, so if you’re doing all this rehab, why not build more housing? And is this being supported by comprehensive community development efforts? I compare housing to the wheels on a car. The engine is the most complex part of the car, but without wheels you’re not going nowhere.

So Common Wealth has housing, we do business incubation, we do adult and youth workforce development, we have a comprehensive violence prevention effort. We have a huge investment on the east side, so our staff has grown from the east side. Now we have this component of 39 units on the west side. It can’t be housing alone. We have to bring everyone.

We made a lot of promises to people when we bought buildings on the west side. But we’re going to leverage everything Common Wealth does to support that work. And by the way, we’re going to get an office out there. I have old ties to Allied Drive, old family and friends. A lot of the people I grew up with on the east side can’t live on the east side anymore, so they live out there. So we’re going to be good neighborhood partners. Common Wealth opened in ‘79 and it’s taken 38 years to help stabilize Willy Street. This takes a long time.

I see Common Wealth as a Madison asset. It’s an idea. It was a bunch of rogueish, badass hippies who saw a problem and said we’re going to fix it and it’s going to be weird, but we’re going to do it and try these things out. It’s a Madison thing. Going around the country, I’m really interested in youth development and education and then I’m also into housing, land use and land trusts. And also I think we need to talk about economic development and industrial relations and people look at me like, “Yo, you’re crazy. There’s no such place.” And I’m like, you don’t know from whence I came.

In Madison, a common concern is you’ve got all of these groups doing good work, operating in silos and they are too busy to talk to each other. People on the east side don’t talk to people on the west side. Is there a solution for that?

One of the advantages of growing up all over this town is I know people all over town. With this problem, you’ve got the four Cs: Competition in that I’m competing against you to get something. Then cooperation, we can sit at the same table. Coordination: I’m going to use the sink right now, and when I’m done you can use it. Collaboration: You’re going to make the pie crust, I’m going to pick the cherries, someone else is going to make the filling and we’re going to eat the pie together. It’s really important we understand the iterations there. Generally, people want to go from competition to collaboration. But there are steps in there.

A lot of that is driven through funding cycles. Are the funding cycles at the various organizations like Evjue (the charitable arm of the Cap Times) and the Madison Community Foundation and United Way aligned? Because we’re always asking organizations that don’t have any money, run by folks who are just passionate, who don’t have formal education. We want them to do advanced coordination and collaboration. Is that being asked of the funding entities? The city, county, state, university? And the private sector? Are we asking those areas to align? How about someone design a structure to look at all these things collectively.

 

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Jason Joyce took over as news editor of The Capital Times in 2013.