|Justice Castañeda was born in the same year, 1979, that
Common Wealth Development was established
in the Williamson Street area.
Justice Castañeda Leads
CommonWealth into a Citywide Era
By Jonathan Gramling
As we sit in his CommonWealth Development office on the east end of
Williamson Street, Justice Castañeda has a calm presence while we talk. He
has refreshing candor as he talks about his childhood growing up in Madison.
It seems that he has the attitude of “it is what it is” and accepts himself for
who he is and owns all of it, his rough childhood, his service in the U.S.
Marine Corps and rotation in Iraq and the master’s degree in Policy,
Organization and Leadership Studies from Stanford University and a master’s
degree in City Planning with a concentration on Housing, Community and
Economic Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And as CommonWealth continues to evolve from its roots where it focused
almost entirely on economic and community development issues in the
Williamson Street corridor to more of a citywide effort, Castañeda has the right
mix of street savvy and intellectual pedigree to understand the problems that
economically-challenged individual communities face and to do something
While Castañeda faced the issues and problems that many children of color
face growing up in a predominantly Euro-American community like Madison, he also recognizes that he came from a position of privilege. He
had privilege that many children of color don’t have. He came from a well-connected background.
“My grandparents and all of the people who came out of that same school of thinking in Racine, it’s a tremendous privilege to be associated
with them,” Castañeda said. “My Mexican/Chicano family is a tremendous source of privilege for me in the work that these folks have done.
My aunt was a lecturer at UW-Madison Chicano Studies. My cousin Rebecca Ramirez is a Ph.D. She works as a psychologist. Karen Herrera is
another of my cousins. Growing up, regardless of what was happening with me, I was very fortunate that I had these people operating within
my orbit. And that’s just family. My dad is an interesting character. He has long roots in Wisconsin, in general. His mother and father have done
some amazing work in Racine. She was an educator. She started the bilingual education program in Racine. There are a number of people here
— Lee Thomas from East, Oscar Mireles, Dean Loumas — who knew my grandparents in Racine.”
Castañeda didn’t have a close relationship with his dad and his mom disappeared when he was in second grade. But he didn’t end up
homeless or in foster care because he had a safety net of community support.
“With all of these people, it would be false to say that I was living on the street,” Castañeda confided. “That’s not exactly true. I was able to
move out on my own. I moved in with my girlfriend when I was in seventh and eighth grade. I just did that because I could, I guess. I always
want to make sure that I say that right because it isn’t the case. There are a lot of folks who don’t have a choice, end up in living rooms and
having to couch surf. That wasn’t the case with me. I had a lot of people, whether it was my father or not, within that community orbit who
looked out for me and took care of me. There were a few white folks in there, but most of the people are folks of color. We don’t think about that.
But it’s an interesting way to think about privilege.”
Like many children of color growing up in Madison — especially when their parents aren’t continuously engaged in their lives — Castañeda
grew up in a type of cultural fog in which the society at large told him little about who he was and without a strong immediate family anchor,
Castañeda got into trouble often.
“When I was in seventh grade, I got caught at what is now Black Hawk Middle School with a knife at school,” Castañeda said. “I got
suspended for a day. I got sent home. I got caught off campus with a gun. We were seen with a gun. It wasn’t a real gun. It was a BB gun. We
had to bring it in and I got suspended for three days.”
Who knows what direction his life would have taken were it not for the web of community support that prevented Castañeda from bottoming out
and landing in jail or worse. There were people like Dennis McClain and Clifton Davis and many others.
“There was Keith Burkes and the Dane County Multicultural Teen Council,” Castañeda said. “I had to do that as a part of community service. I
started doing community service when I was in eighth grade. I was probably the youngest person when I got in there. Everyone else was
college bound. When they were juniors and seniors, they were doing extracurricular stuff to go to college. I was just trying to stay out of jail.
That was a very interesting time. We were doing these skits at the time. We were going to schools and doing skits on things like interracial
dating, teen pregnancy and LGBTQ issues. This was like in 1994-1997. At the time, we were told when we were cruising out to one of the
schools in the county and 360 students got excused from school so that they didn’t have to be a part of conversation around multiculturalism.
One school in Dane County told us that they couldn’t guarantee our safety talking about interracial dating. It’s funny because in the 1990s here,
you just felt that was the way it was.”
Castañeda attended East High School and barely graduated. And his life hit a tipping point when he got in a fight with another student.
“When I got to East High School, I got into a fight when I was 18-years-old,” Castañeda said. “Obviously there were a lot of extenuating
circumstances. I got into a fight with a few people. And I had just turned 18-years-old a couple of weeks before that. I got into a fight and the kid
was 17-years-old. And I got charged with a felony for physical abuse to a minor. I think about that a lot. It ended up getting dismissed. But I think
about that moment and how young I was and had I gotten that felony, just how much my life would have changed at that point because
everything else I did afterwards and I went on to all of these things, if I had that felony, none of those things could have happened.”
While all of the legal issues were getting sorted out, Castañeda worked construction. He blew through a lot of his money. And the world kept
changing around him.
“I was watching a lot of my friends whose highpoint was 17-years-old and then you realize that a lot of us weren’t going to college and there
was no real economy to get into, so people got into the economy they could. And a lot of them ended up in prison and a few ended up dead,”
Castañeda said. “You start seeing this happen to people you grew up with and you realize the situation that you are in.”
He tried MATC, but didn’t do well at all. It was like he was in a haze and he knew he had to get out. He ended up at the U.S. Marine Corps
recruiting station on Thierer Road on Madison’s east side.
“I went over and talked to the recruiters,” Castañeda said. “I just said that I needed to get out of here. The Marine said, ‘Young man, you don’t
have any idea where you are.’ I was like, ‘Whatever man! Just get me out of here.’ Three weeks later, I was on the plane to San Diego.”
The Marines probably saved his life.
“When I went into the Marine Corps, it was the first place I ever found freedom and it was in a very interesting environment to be thinking
about freedom,” Castañeda said. “Every day when I look back at it, I almost get goose bumps because it was such a necessary exhale that I
needed to just breathe for a second. I spent a lot of time in sobriety, at least initially. And I owe a lot, going back, to all of these people, uncles
and aunts, who sent me books. I started reading. I was doing a lot of reading about the Black and Brown power movements when I was in the
Marines. It was an interesting place to be reading it, but it was a privilege because I had the space and the time. All you have is time. It’s very
similar to many institutional forms where you only do two days, the day you go in and the day you go out. Everything in between is just down
It was the down time that turned Castañeda’s life around for while he was defending the country, he also had the space to figure out who he
was and realize that he was a scholar.
Next issue: Iraq and Beyond