News: Infiltrating the System

Public Allies' boot camp for young activists

Jun 6, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Amy Vincent wants to merge art and activism.

Unless you're up for a tour in the Marine Corps, there aren't many organizations that insist that you be a leader right from the start.

There also aren't many places that pay you to do hands-on work making the world a better place.

Public Allies does both.

"Diverse young leaders strengthening communities" is how the group describes its mission, but that's only part of the story. The Allies, as the 18- to 30-year-old participants are called, do demanding, life-changing work.

Four days a week they staff the places of last hope, the food banks and AIDS centers and advocacy groups that exist at society's ragged edges to catch those who slip through the safety net.

On Fridays the Allies assemble for rigorous training and assessment and additional team projects.

In exchange, they are paid a respectable stipend and provided with health insurance and childcare — and the opportunity to change the world, one person at a time, beginning with him or her.

It's like basic training, without the close-order drill.

Still an outsider, but closer
In 1991, two researchers sought to refute then-popular Generation X stereotypes that portrayed young people as uncaring slackers.

They found that while a significant number of young adults wanted to be involved in improving their communities, many had limited access to the means to do so.

At the same time, they learned that the non-profit groups that served those communities had difficulty hiring, training and supporting young staff members. Public Allies was created to bridge the gap.

The first class of 15 allies served in Washington, D.C. in 1992. Within a decade, programs were established in Delaware, Wisconsin, North Carolina, California, Ohio, New York and New Mexico. To date, 1,020 men and women have graduated from the program, 75 of them from the Cincinnati center. Twenty-one Allies are now completing the 10-month program in the Tristate.

Nationwide, Allies have served at 566 partner organizations, which, together with Americorps — the federal government's program for community service — provide about half of the funding. The remainder is contributions from sources such as the Cincinnati Department of Community Development and Procter and Gamble.

Kenny Joe Havens, the first Ally at the Free Store Food Bank in Over-the-Rhine, grins as he offers his business card. It says, "Special Projects Coordinator." He takes care of such tasks as scheduling a mammography van and setting up programs for free air conditioners and fans.

Most of his time is helping homeless citizens obtain the documentation that is the ticket of admission to social services —birth certificates and identification cards, mostly.

Havens says he is here out of a passion for serving others.

"The best thing is the opportunity to listen to the stories of people of other colors, backgrounds, religions than myself and seeing that a lot of change begins with two people listening to each other," he says.

According to the Public Allies Web site, 82 percent of Allies continue in non-profit and public service careers. Havens isn't sure what he will do next.

"I want to take what I have learned here and use it as a lifestyle — not just put it in a 10-month time frame," he says.

Asked what has changed since he entered the program, Havens says, "I listen more. There is one more person who has a desire to listen and really hear what people are saying. And there are 21 people that want to create change in that way."

Mohammad Elgazzar is an education coordinator for the Alliance for Leadership and Interconnection. He has organized young adults' clubs in South Fairmount, Kennedy Heights and Northside, among other neighborhoods. He says his most meaningful experience has been "people rejecting my handshakes and offering hugs instead. I was, and still am, an outsider."

The expression on his face turns to anguish.

"The worst? Receiving phone calls at 1 a.m., someone saying, 'I'm in the Justice Center and I need some help.' I felt I had failed, to a certain degree, in doing my job."

Elgazzar's sense of responsibility has a long reach. He says that when he started at Public Allies, he "felt as though the developing world was really moving forward, but then Sept. 11 happened and we stepped back about 20 years — the Palestinian situation, the Congo, AIDS in South Africa. Is the U.S. asking the necessary questions?"

Brian Coovert believes, as Tip O'Neill put it, all politics is local.

"There is so much work to do in Cincinnati, I may spend the rest of my life trying to create social movement," Coovert says.

Coovert coordinates after-school programs at the 21st Century School in Dayton, Ky. One of his projects is a regular student-produced insert to the local newspaper. Like Elgazzar, he regrets feeling like an outsider, but finds inspiration in the Public Allies team.

Coovert says he has been profoundly affected by "the other Allies' diversity. I now have a chance to interact with these people on a daily basis. You actually can have dialogue with people."

One measure of Coovert's commitment is this: he has submitted an application to serve on the board of Cincinnati's new Citizen Complaint Authority, the body charged with oversight of use of force by the police department under the Collaborative Agreement signed in April.

"There is always going to be work to do," he says. "Until we have a perfect country, I'll have a job."

Look at the assets
When Amy Vincent was majoring in art history and sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Academy, she searched for a way to merge art and politics.

"Art and social justice work are both trying to break down barriers," she says.

After college, she was working and participating in various human rights causes when she saw a flyer for Public Allies.

"My initial idea was that I could be getting paid for what I would be doing anyway, and I could get my foot in the door working in non-profits," Vincent says. "Public Allies merges those two ideas."

Vincent does design and press work for the Environmental Community Organization's outreach program.

"ECO was my first choice," she says. "It's one of the most radical organizations in Public Allies, in that it can work with government agencies without very many strings attached."

Vincent describes her personal and professional growth.

"It lets me be open to the process and lets me drop some of the baggage that I have," she says. "I get to practice being an activist in the larger society. I view the world in a different way, through its assets instead of its shortcomings. You are the past and the future, living in the present. This is where I belong."

This class of Allies will complete their placement projects later this month. Their achievements will be showcased at Presentations of Learning, to be held at the Union Institute June 18-20.

Meanwhile, selection of the next class is in progress. As of last week, 66 applicants were competing for the 24 positions to be filled in September.

"We exist in the world as useful resources to effect change," Vincent says. "To a large extent, it's what you make of it."

To learn more about Public Allies call 513-559-1300 or visit