A Q&A with Becky Steinhoff

Steinhoff and the Goodman Community Center are changing lives on the near-east side

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Becky Steinhoff is executive director of the Goodman Community Center

Explain your job in one sentence.
My job is supporting the development and growth of programs that strengthen lives and impact long-term change.

What’s the first thing you do every day?
After I get coffee, I try to walk through the building and greet people. Then I usually check email and phone messages. I wish it were a little more exciting than that.

Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood a few blocks from the Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Chicago. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up there. It is a very diverse and liberal community and really provided me with a great compass in life.

What goal are you currently working on?
Professionally, we are working on digging deeper—this means strategic planning, capacity building, better evaluation measurements and using the data to inform program design, and creating financial stability for the center.

Personally, I am working on being healthier and spending more quality time with family and friends. Oh yeah, and trying to keep up with housework, but that keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the priority list.

What’s most needed to do your job?
Well, beyond financial and human capital, it takes a lot of patience and flexibility. No day is ever the same and no day turns out how you thought it would when you walk in the doors. We are lucky to have so many smart and committed people working here; that makes things easier.

What’s your favorite space at the center?
I like different spaces for different reasons. It is a beautiful building and where I like to be depends on what is going on. I love the café and enjoy going in there to work and have meetings. I also love the mezzanines in the lobby because they are generally quiet enough to work, but you still feel connected to the activity that is going on below. If I just need a pick-me-up—a boost of energy and focus on why I am here—I like to go outside and watch children play and our incredible staff interacting with them. Or another favorite is hanging out in the lobby when it’s busy and watching people come and go. It is really wonderful to see the diversity of ages, races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. The lobby is really a great place and has such a wonderful energy.

Share a program that’s had a significant impact on the people it serves this year.
Well, that would be all of our programs! We get to see little ones getting ready for school—developing and becoming more socially aware—to older adults finding strength, connection and support in the community that is created here at the center—and just about everyone in between. We see impacts daily in small and big ways. The high school students of TEENworks and the Seed to Table school program are the most visibly noticeable. They are a group of students who have not fit in and are not engaged in school or their community. They come in with a lot of baggage and are very suspicious of us and what the program is going to be all about. You can just see them soften, engage, begin to trust and grow. Before too long they are part of our community and they are excited about what they are learning and so responsive to being needed, understood and respected. They can articulate this change and what they need in ways that younger children can’t. It is very heartwarming.

Do you have a hidden talent?
No, not really. I wish I did. I am kind of just out there with who I am and what I am about. I work, garden, ride my bike, exercise, read, go to movies—the usual stuff.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
Oh, my, there have been so many. I love books by Khaled Hosseini—Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns. Even though they are depressing they are beautifully written and there is a thread of hope. I loved the Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I also love anything by Alice Walker. I do like to read for escape purposes and enjoy good mysteries and suspense novels like John Grisham books.

What’s your favorite pick-me-up?
An afternoon cup of coffee? No, seriously, talking to my daughter, walking through the Goodman Community Center and seeing people hard at work and play. Dinner and wine with good friends.

What’s the most memorable trip you’ve taken?
I love my family vacations the most. I get to hang out with my children (now almost grown-up) and everyone gets along well and we get to spend lots of time talking and laughing. We have traveled across the United States by car and have also gone to Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras and Belize. Before we were married, my husband and I traveled through Kenya. This was when the U.S. was withdrawing humanitarian aid from Kenya and the anti-U.S. sentiment was very strong. The trip was very memorable because it is a beautiful country, with wonderful people, but it was also very dangerous and poor and we were robbed several times.

What was your best (or worst, whichever’s more memorable!) subject in school?
I never liked school before college, so memories are more about people who meant a lot to me. My seventh-grade teacher, Barbara Sepin, seemed to appreciate me for who I was and encouraged my constant desire to question authority and to challenge me to think things through. In college, even though I got my degree in psychology and social work, I always enjoyed environmental studies and ecology classes the most. There was a professor, who we called by only her first name, Gretchen, who used to just mesmerize me and I took every class she taught.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Like I said, I am pretty out there. Let’s see …

What makes you proud?
My children and all the amazing things that happen at the Goodman Community Center every day. When alumni of the center's programs stop at the center and they are all grown-up and doing well. That makes me so proud.

What would you like your legacy to be?
That I helped make Madison a better place to live and that by creating the Goodman Community Center I helped create an avenue of success for young people.

What would you change about Madison?
We are a really wealthy community and if I could, I would like to eliminate the disparity that exists between people of color and white members of our community.

Who are your heroes?
I find tremendous strength in low-income women in the community who are raising their children, holding down jobs, trying to make ends meet, dealing with so much on their own and receiving very little praise or gratitude. Their strength, hard work and resilience are awe-inspiring.

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” – Christopher Reeve


Heroes to me are people who see something that needs changing and do something about it.

Becky Steinhoff is executive director of the Goodman Community Center. For more information, visit goodmancenter.org.

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