Public Allies Milwaukee 25th Anniversary
I was grateful and honored that Public Allies Milwaukee invited me to their 25th anniversary celebration, and to join Executive Director Ashley Lee, Shawn Vega, and Amanda Clark (current Allies) in a story telling program facilitated by Megan McGee, the Public Allies alum who founded Ex Fabula. The night was magic with a room that was filled with diversity, energy, hope, love, and a passion for social justice — a tonic for everything wrong in our country and culture right now.
Below is my brief story on the founding of Public Allies Milwaukee:
This room is so beautiful. I wish every room looked like this one with this much diversity and energy. If Public Allies continues to thrive, every room will.
25 years ago this week, more than 800 guests filled the Bradley Pavilion of the PAC for the launch of Public Allies Milwaukee. Mayor Norquist and County Executive Ament sat together on stage with the radiant ReDonna Rogers, our keynote speaker. 140 young adults from Milwaukee were being honored for making a positive difference in our community, many would become Allies.
Let me rewind.
In December, 1992, I was inspired by Vanessa Kirsch at a Wingspread conference in Racine, where she told me about her new nonprofit, Public Allies. She told me they were looking for young people who were passionate about making a difference and would help them begin careers working for community and change, especially young people of color and others under-represented in public leadership. It was going to be part of incoming President Clinton’s AmeriCorps national service program. I asked her how to get involved. She said, “Start one in Milwaukee.”
With all the experience I had as a recovering drug addict, a gardener, a telemarketer for an insurance agency, and a 6thyear student at UWM, I felt called to start Public Allies in Milwaukee. They gave me a daunting assignment: I needed to raise $50,000 and get letters of support from 10 foundations and corporations, 20 nonprofit leaders, the Mayor, the Governor, our Member of Congress, and others. I had none of these relationships. I learned later that they asked for all of this thinking we’d either go away or not meet their goals.
My friend Ed suggested I talk to his roommate, Josh Zepnick, who was an intern at the Greater Milwaukee Committee. We had lunch at Beans and Barley and he made a list on a napkin of 30 or so key nonprofit, business, and government leaders, and helped me start arranging meetings with them. One was Jim Marks, VP of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, who would become our lead and largest donor for many years.
I had moved into my ex-girlfriend’s parents’ home, borrowed one of their cars, and converted a studio office they had at the Fortress building in Brewers Hill into Public Allies’ first office. I zealously cold-called, networked, volunteered with organizations, and got help from so many. Charlie Bray, President of The Johnson Foundation and Wingspread, where I met Vanessa, hosted a lunch to meet corporate and foundation leaders. I also visited Chicago regularly where Michelle Obama was a year ahead of us in starting Public Allies Chicago. By July, 1993, we were given the go ahead.
In every city, Public Allies launched with an event called Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, honoring 100 young adults for the positive difference they were making in the community. The event aimed to counter the media stereotypes of young people as slackers and thugs, and show that young people were the solution, not the problem in communities. To begin that process, we walked door-to-door in neighborhoods asking residents if they knew young people making a difference. On our first neighborhood walk in Sherman Park in October, 1993, five volunteers showed up. We did not get a lot of names. Five months later, almost 70 volunteers walked Sherman Park, Midtown, and Clark Square on a surprisingly sunny and warm Saturday in March. The names were rolling in.
The difference was Kimberly Bruce, who Josh knew from Rufus King high school, and who joined me on staff to build Public Allies Milwaukee. Kimberly was a person who both told it like it was and lit up every room she entered. She engaged people easily and our outreach grew immensely. We visited college campuses, MPS high schools, churches, and beauty parlors. We posted flyers in coffee shops, laundromats, bars, and grocery stores. 140 young people were nominated, and we honored them all. They included a former homeless woman who was volunteering at Repairers of the Breach, a former gang member who was working with youth at Holton Youth Center, an HIV positive man who was an AIDS activist, a young woman who was a service learning star at Marquette University. It was the diversity of talent we believed was in our community. The 800 people that night also came to believe in our vision and promise.
It was hard to believe that they believed. On paper, it should not have worked. We were a risky prospect to say the least. But we had a vision, passion, and willingness to hustle, learn, and engage help from others. And that spirit was carried forward when Ed Minter and Michelle Dobbs joined our founding team. I remember Jim Marks rolling his eyes when I first pitched him for money and declared that in 10 years more than 200 Allies would be working in the community. Now there are 650 and the impact they are all having is more than we could have ever dreamed.
Shawn Vega and Amanda Clark, the Allies who you will hear from next, are everything we believed in and hoped for. And this room and all of you here are a testament to Ashley Lee’s leadership of Public Allies Milwaukee today.
PLEASE join me and Donate to Public Allies Milwaukee in honor of 25 years!!!