THE Q&A: Corey Dantzler takes reins at Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — It’s been 18 months since Corey Dantzler took the reigns of the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center.

He assumed his new position after longtime Executive Director Naomi Bradley McSwain retired on March 31, 2023, after 16 years of leading the community-based, family business. Her work at the Wooten Center spanned 32 years.

Since becoming the Wooten Center’s new executive director, Dantzler, who has an easy-going persona and a long history of helping youth, has made it his mission to effect change, step up the center’s efforts and expand its outreach.

The center serves more than 400 students per year at its location on Western Avenue and at satellite locations. It provides free after-school and summer programs to help students in grades 3-12 attain grade-level proficiency and promotion, high school graduation and college and career access and success.

Housed in six buildings across the street from the original site, the Wooten Center was founded in 1990, by Myrtle Faye Rumph (McSwain’s aunt), in honor of her son, Alton “Dunnie” Wooten Jr., who was killed in a drive-by shooting near Adams and Crenshaw boulevards in January 1989.

Leading an organization like the Wooten Center is not Dantzler’s first rodeo. His father, Lou Dantzler, founded the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in 1968. When the senior Dantzler died, Corey Dantzler took over as executive director and served 12 years as part of some 29 years in administration there.

McSwain said Dantzler’s experience and his obvious commitment to the community is the reason she chose him to succeed her.

“I chose Corey because he has a caring heart — that was number one,” said McSwain, a member of the center’s board of directors. “I feel like if a person truly cares, they will do the work. By care, I mean about the kids and the community.”

McSwain said, “You get to know people and you find out their strengths and challenges.”

“I don’t care about the degree,” she said. “If you don’t care about those things, I don’t want you. Overall, he’s been great. If he didn’t care, everybody would know by now. I don’t worry about the center. I believe 100% that the center is in good hands with Corey and the staff.”

McSwain said when she met Corey Dantzler for the first time, they made an “instant connection.”

“There was a connection when it comes to carrying on a legacy,” McSwain said. “I was carrying my aunt’s. He was carrying his dad’s. He understood me from the jump. It wasn’t something on my list of characteristics, but it was a bonus.”

Today Dantzler, 55, who officially stepped into the role of executive director in December 2022, says he is “Exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

His goal, he says, is to put his stamp on the organization, but also to continue the center’s legacy of community and commitment.

A Pasadena native, Dantzler is a widow and the father of two boys.  He attended Cal Poly Pomona where he received a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.

I recently spoke to Dantzler about his role as the executive director of the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center.

DD: How has everything been, so far?

CD: It’s been good, a good learning experience. I have a good sense of what needs to happen to continue the legacy of the organization and add some of my opportunities.

DD: What kinds of things would you like to implement?

CD: I’d like to implement expanding the opportunities for the youth. I want to do more of what we do. More help with academics, tutoring and bridges for college. I want to serve more youth. We have three adjacent buildings not being used. We want to accommodate more kids. We are building out recreation and the sports component. That is a big component.

DD: Why did you want the job?

CD: That’s easy. I’m no stranger to South L.A. or working in the community. I had a long career at Challengers where my father was a founder. I needed to be back in a leadership role.

DD: Is that what you told Naomi (McSwain)?

CD: Naomi and I had a two-hour conversation on the phone. It was an opportunity to be back in the South L.A. community. I was sold on it. My first three days felt like three years — in a good way. Everyone was so welcoming. It had its set of challenges as well. I had to figure out how things worked. I had to make adjustments. The board has been very supportive and great and patient with me. 

DD: What is it about the South L.A. community?

CD: My father always told us the youth of this area need the same opportunities as anywhere else. He always felt there were good things that happened in South L.A. It always has a negative connotation. I knew what needed to occur. I knew about that secret sauce.

DD: What did you expect from the gig and what did you get?

CD: My expectation coming into it, I knew the organization was striving to want to do great work. The challenge again, coming out of COVID, we were doing weekly testing when I came on board. I wanted to put us in a position to get back to normal. My expectation, we have all these great opportunities. How do we turn the corner? How are we going to work through this? 

I had no concept of the history of things that had happened before it. Now I have a good reference. I got more than what I expected. The staff is a lifeline. They put their blood, sweat and tears into this organization. They are what make this organization go. It’s a tireless job for them. That’s what motivates me. If they are successful, the kids will be successful. They are my family.

DD: Has your age helped or hindered your work?

CD: Age isn’t catching up as it relates to this work. I started serving youth in my 20s. It’s different now. I’m developing a good sense of wisdom. At this age, I know when to talk and when to shut up. I don’t always have to be right. I listen and learn from others. My knees crack in the morning and I have to stretch to get the back going but I’m OK.

DD: What is your biggest challenge?

CD: Getting people to invest in the organization and to see we are making a difference. We are one of the best kept secrets in South L.A.

DD: Why are you the right person for this job?

CD: (getting emotional) Because I have a passion for what I do. One of the things Naomi said when she spoke with me was that I had the heart to lead this organization. It was one of those things you can’t teach. It just comes. It just happens. It’s who I am.

DD: Did you get that from your father?

CD: Yes, my father. There is no one else. He was a mountain of a man. I’m fortunate to have 13 years with him professionally. I have mirrored him. I watched what he did.

DD: Sounds like things are working out.

CD: I wake up every day knowing I made the right decision to be here.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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