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Public Allies Expands Its Scope

In its 11th year, nonprofit program trains volunteers

By Dave Malaska · May 12th, 2010 · News
A nonprofit “quiet giant” in Cincinnati is about to have its biggest year yet.

Public Allies, a program of BRIDGES for a Just Community, has gotten little attention over its 11-year existence, but that might soon change as the group is poised to enroll its largest class ever and embark on a trio of projects that promise to leave an indelible mark on the city.

“Allies has been such an asset to the community, but it’s been under the radar because most of its work has been in partnership with other nonprofit organizations. Its work has been in more of a support role,” says Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, a one-time Allies graduate. “But it really has been a quiet giant.”

The local Public Allies chapter began in 1999. Since then, it has graduated nearly 300 participants through a program that includes a 10-month paid internship at service organizations throughout the city.

The average annual crop of 25-30 participants — or “allies” — has also participated in weekly classes ranging from practical applications such as grant writing to social issues like studies of classism and racism and completed major service projects as part of the program’s curriculum.

As a mark of its success, many of the city’s nonprofit groups believe Public Allies’ impact is felt long after those internships and service projects are complete, says Donald Warner, program manager for Public Allies and the director of continuous learning with BRIDGES.

“When people think about Allies, they think about all that energy that the Allies have brought to so many groups, they think about the connections that they’ve made that have opened up resources they didn’t know were available,” Warner says. “Also, it’s built the volunteer capacity of so many nonprofits, which has helped them sustain their work.”

More importantly, he adds, the program has energized young Cincinnatians to do more nonprofit work, learning the ropes with the internships and later stepping into leadership positions with the groups.

Looking around at the current leadership of Cincinnati’s nonprofit groups shows evidence of Allies’ lasting effect.

Weiss, a former Allies intern with the Holocaust Center, is now its executive director. Shawn Jeffers, another Allies grad, is the programs director for BRIDGES.

Other classmates, like Maria Carter and LaToya Gates, have been active with Children, Inc., AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati and Caracole.

Those are just a few examples, Warner says.

“So many of our graduates are still in our community, doing case work for the city. They now lead the groups they worked with, they’re involved with the Coffee Party movement, the Peace Corps. They’re still out there, realizing the goals of Allies,” he says, beaming with obvious pride.

BRIDGES for a Just Community oversees the local Public Allies chapter. Founded in November 2006, it is an independent organization aimed at achieving inclusion, equity and justice for all and is governed by a group of prominent civic leaders.

In one form or another, BRIDGES has served the local community since its formation in 1944 as a regional office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now known as the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Meanwhile, the program is ready to extend its influence ever further.

Thanks to increased funding through Ameri -Corps, this year’s class will include spots for 40 participants, the largest class to ever come through the program. Interest has continued to grow: Last year, the group had four applicants for each of the 30 spots it filled. As this year’s application deadline approaches on May 31, even more applicants are expected.

Allies is also changing the focus of its service projects, Warner explains.

“In the past, we focused on issues and educational projects,” he says. “This year, we chose projects that are more sustainable.”

The three service projects include a partnership with the city and Xavier University in establishing a workforce development center in Evanston; helping the nascent New Life Furniture Bank in Milford — which delivered more than 1,500 pieces of furniture to families in need last year — extend its reach; and establishing a youth leadership program in environ mental education at the Gorman Heritage Farm in Evendale.

Public Allies is helping build the workforce development center from the ground up, Warner adds, from interior design to crafting its programs and building a volunteer base. At the furniture bank, Allies work will increase its visibility within the community and has helped the group acquire a delivery truck.

“We hope that the projects will leave behind something more tangible, something that will last long after the projects are completed,” Warner says.

Nationally, Public Allies is thriving as well. More than 80 percent of its nearly 3,000 graduates are still involved in civic life, and partisan sniping that haunted the organization because of close ties to President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, has largely ceased.

President Obama was a member of the founding advisory board of the group, while Mrs. Obama was executive director of the Chicago chapter before serving on the national board of directors of Public Allies from 1997 to 2001.

Attacked by conservative pundits as an indoctrination tool of liberals, Public Allies weathered that particular political storm.

“It’s really important to understand that we’re not politically affiliated,” Warner says. “We’re associated with the left because of the Obamas, but we’ve had plenty of conservative Allies.

“One of our key principles is promoting inclusion. We try to have diverse leadership. We focus on issues that affect the community, rather than polemic, ideological stances. That’s our common ground.” �



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