Vera Court Neighborhood Center, Incorporated, has a new leader. The organization which runs the Vera Court Neighborhood Center on the Northside and Bridge Lake Point Waunona Neighborhood Center (BLW) on the Southeast side was previously run by Tom Solyst for over 22 years. Now, Richard Jones, Jr. has stepped into leadership, and we wanted to take a moment to get to know him and learn what his plans are for the future.
Who is Richard Jones, Jr?
I have been in Madison since 2004. My father, Richard Jones, Sr. got a job here and so I came with my family in seventh grade. I went to Wright Middle School then West High School where I was involved in sports, but found that I also liked poetry, music, and writing. I met some people who said, “You should try spoken-word, I think you will like it”. So long story short, I gave it a go. I was playing basketball but chose to take the artistic route because I figured it would be more enhancing for my life and my career. I was only going to play basketball for a little while, but I got a First Wave scholarship from UW Madison. I would spend five years on the UW Madison’s campus and really enjoyed my time there and learned a lot. I obtained a degree in African American studies. People used to ask me all the time, what are you going to do with that?
I knew I wanted to do something around education, but not specifically in a school setting as it had too many limitations. My whole heart and mindset have been on using whatever skills, talents, resources, connections I have to further community. As an artist, I didn’t like the idea of ego-centric art, the act of promoting. It just never felt comfortable. I’ve carried that into my professional life as well. I don’t want to be the center of attention. I want the work that I’m doing in collaboration with others to be the focus.
What work have you done in the past?
Nonprofit work seemed to be one of the best opportunities to do selfless community work and youth advocacy. I worked at a few nonprofits, doing youth advocacy and programming. I left the nonprofit world in 2018 to start a digital media company called Oddly Arranged Media. I did podcasts, music recordings, photography, and videography. I built the company to be able to offer services to people. Then the pandemic hit, and the concept of essential work started to be one of the keywords that affected my life.
The essential workers, the frontline workers. They were still doing work while everyone else sat at home. And there was a time where I was one of the people sitting at home, and I started to re-evaluate what I was doing. It’s not that I wasn’t offering services that people liked, enjoyed, and needed, it just didn’t feel like the essential work that I was called to do. So, I went on a self-exploration journey, jumped back into the nonprofit sector, and found that working in neighborhood centers was what brought me joy.
How did you find your way to Vera Court?
I was looking for jobs and I looked at all kinds of positions. There weren’t a lot of things on the level that I thought I wanted, like the assistant director or manager level, but there was a decent amount of executive director jobs. I thought “This feels like a big job. Is that for me?” I tried to envision myself in the day-to-day. And the Vera Court position felt like something I could see myself doing. But I had an imposter syndrome moment where I was like, “This is big can I do this? Do I have the skillset set?” I copied and pasted the job description onto another document and took the qualifications and the responsibilities and turned them into a checklist. And I went down line by line and said, “Oh, they’re looking for this. I can do that. They’re looking for this. I’ve done that before.” It wasn’t until I checked every box that I realized I should stop doubting myself and consider the experience and qualifications that I’ve had. So, I applied for the job and got it.
How has your new role been going?
I just started my seventh month. I came in and I took the position of a student. I said to my team “Yes, I’m in charge but you all have been here. Teach me what it means to be here. What’s the culture, what do we do, how do we do it, why do we do it? Because what’s on the website and the job description that’s one thing but then there is reality.” I took a lot of time to focus on relationship building.
Vera Court Neighborhood Center Incorporated is named after Vera Court Neighborhood Center, but it is an agency that holds two neighborhood centers. Vera Court and BLW Neighborhood Center. I spend time at both centers, with a little more time recently at BLW due to staff transitions.
I’ve taken time to ask questions while sharing meals, getting to know people and their stories. I want to know what brings them in and what do they look for in a community center. What do they need and how can we be supportive? Those are the questions that I’ve been asking. I truly believe that it’s our job to be good neighbors to the communities that we’re in. And it’s our job to be in constant dialogue back and forth with the community because if it’s one-sided, either way, nobody’s winning. And so that’s something that I’ve been doing, and that’s something that I continue to do, and I want to do at a higher level.
What do you see in the future?
I took the first three months to ask the staff who we were and the second three months to talk about where we were going together. Now it’s my turn to be in the driver’s seat and to say, “This is who we are, this is what we do, this is why we do it, and this is how we’re getting there.” These are the conversations we’re having. The Latino Academy of Workforce Development used to be a part of our agency, and when they were, we had programming from childcare all the way up to adults. Now we need to fill in the gap that exists with their departure. One of the visions that I have is to build programming for adults that is a direct response to what the community says they need, either through conversations that we’re having at our Friday community meal, or through the resources they are requesting. We also have a large population of age-at-home seniors who want to be an active part of the community. They are an important part of our volunteer base. We want to build programming that keeps them engaged, like field trips and opportunities for them to connect and feel supported.
We have academic programming that coincides with our youth programs now at both centers. I’m really focused on agency standards, and agency consistency. We want to strengthen our Milestones program because our kids need it, especially after the pandemic our kids are behind academically, and so we have a unique opportunity to partner with schools in a deeper way and help kids with their literacy journeys.
We also paused our Capital Campaign at BLW, and I would eventually like to relaunch that when the appropriate time comes.
What is something you want people to think about when it comes to Neighborhood Centers?
Neighborhood centers don’t happen by accident. The story of neighborhood centers usually starts with a cry and a call from within, oftentimes mothers in neighborhoods are saying, “We need something for our kids. Our kids deserve to be safe. Our kids deserve an opportunity to thrive and not only survive.” And the cry is loud enough or long enough that folks in power respond. Many neighborhood centers in the area have been developed in partnership with the community and we know that neighborhood centers are stabilizers of neighborhoods.
Investing in neighborhood centers is always a worthy cause. We are doing our best to serve and respond to the needs of our community. We are community advocates when voices are not being heard. That is why no two days are the same in the neighborhood center because someone can come who is new to the country and doesn’t speak English and needs to find resources, or someone can come in because they’re running from a domestic situation and their abuser is a block away. You never know what type of situations each day will bring. It’s our job to be equipped to handle just about any and every situation. With that said, neighborhood centers deserve to be funded in a sustainable way because we do work which impacts people’s lives. More unrestricted, trust-based funding gives us an opportunity to meet the needs of our community and to not just be saviors, but to help empower them to help themselves.
What do you do to support yourself?
My faith is everything to me. It is the epicenter of my being and everything that I do stems from it. I am a firm believer in Jesus Christ. Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. I am a Christian. I know that that is a buzzword these days, but everything that I do is in response to my faith. I am also married to a lovely lady named Alexandria Jones. We’ve be married one year September 9th. I am the proud father of two daughters, and we have a new baby on the way. I am also a proud dog papa. I’m a family man. That is what keeps me going.