Public Allies (PA)

Public Allies (PA)


* Seeks to “develop the next generation of leaders” who will create “lasting social change” and “transform communities” in a leftward direction
* PA’s most notable founding board member was Barack Obama.
* Michelle Obama became executive director of PA’s Chicago chapter in 1993.

Founded in 1992 by Vanessa Kirsch and Katrina Browne, Public Allies (PA) seeks to harness “the untapped energy and idealism of young people” in an effort to “develop the next generation of leaders” who will create “lasting social change” and “transform communities.” The organization’s most notable founding board member was Barack Obama, whose wife, Michelle Obama, became executive director of PA’s Chicago chapter in 1993. Also in 1993, President Bill Clinton cited PA as a model for national-service organizations, and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted a White House Rose Garden reception for the fledgling group.

In pursuit of its social-change objectives, PA, through its signature AmeriCorps Ally Program, helps 18- to 30-year-olds “engage in their communities” by placing them in paid, one-year leadership-training apprenticeships with leftwing nonprofit groups or government agencies. These young participants, or “allies,” are approximately two-thirds “people of color,” 60% female, and 15% LGBT.

In exchange for their services, PA’s allies each receive a monthly stipend of $1,300 to $1,800, as well as healthcare insurance and, if they need it, reimbursement for childcare expenses. They are also eligible for student-loan deferments, and after they complete the AmeriCorps Ally Program, they are given a $5,550 education award to help them pay back student loans or finance future schooling.[1] According to PA, more than 80% of its allies have continued working in nonprofit or government jobs after completing their apprenticeships.

Because PA’s apprenticeships are virtually all in service of progressive entities, many of the participating allies become ideologically radicalized in the process. Their worldviews are further sculpted by the retreats and weekly training sessions they are required to attend during their year of service. The results are noteworthy: “Our alumni are more than twice as likely as 18-34 year olds [as a whole] to … engage in protest activities,” PA boasts. One PA-Cincinnati recruit describes her PA experience thusly: “I get to practice being an activist.” Another ally from that same chapter says: “I may spend the rest of my life trying to create social movement. There is always going to be work to do. Until we have a perfect country, I’ll have a job.”[2]

To “connect and engage the growing Public Allies network” of more than 4,000 young people who have served apprenticeships since 1992, PA administers a number of Alumni Programs that “inves[t]” in those alumni who are now “positioned to make the greatest impact.” Moreover, PA’s training and consulting arm — the Leadership Practice program — “magnifies [PA’s] results by helping leaders and organizations better harness the assets of diverse teams and communities.”

PA currently has 20 city and state chapters situated in various places across the U.S.

Among PA’s numerous major donors are the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation, the Fannie Mae Foundation, Ford Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sara Lee Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Woods Fund of Chicago, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. In addition to the grants they award independently, some of these foundations also provide funds to match the private contributions that individual donors make to PA. Yet another key benefactor of Public Allies is AmeriCorps, which has been funding the organization since 1994 and currently covers about half of PA’s expenses.

PA’s chief executive officer since 2000 has been Paul Schmitz, who writes and speaks frequently on such topics as social innovation, civic participation, diversity, and community building. In 2008 Schmitz co-chaired the Obama presidential campaign’s civic-engagement policy group and was a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Team. In 2010, President Obama appointed Schmitz to the White House Council on Community Solutions.

[1] These benefits are consistent with Barack Obama’s 2008 call for “Universal Voluntary Public Service,” wherein he told young people: “If you commit to serving your community, we will make sure you can afford a college education.”

[2] A graduate of PA’s 2005 Los Angeles class recalls that her apprenticeship featured “a lot of talk about race, a lot of talk about sexism, a lot of talk about homophobia, talk about -isms and phobias.” One of those -isms was “heterosexism,” which a PA-Chicago training seminar describes as an outgrowth of “capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and male-dominated privilege.”

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