Public Allies strengthens neighborhoods 

By connecting idealistic young people with non-profit organizations that can channel that idealism into meaningful action, the community development non-profit Public Allies Indianapolis has made an imprint on Indianapolis in less than a year.

Young adults signing up with Public Allies serve 10-month apprenticeships during which they work 30 to 35 hours a week with non-profits throughout the city.

For Public Allies, it's all about "asset based community development," focusing on the skills a community already has to offer, working with the community rather than for it.

During Public Allies Indianapolis' first year, 1,000 volunteers logged more than 5,000 volunteer hours. With 24 Public Allies outposts allied with an additional 21 non-profit partner organizations, the group's main goal is to create a new generation of leaders while strengthening communities.

Finding passion

Megan Johnson, program coordinator for Public Allies, joined the organization after graduate school with a simple goal: to use her skills for something she was passionate about.

Passion is what she found in Public Allies.

Johnson coaches volunteers and Allies through various challenges, teaching leadership and collaboration skills while discussing issues like race, power and privilege.

"Hopefully when they leave, they have a solid idea of what they are good at and how they can make a career after Public Allies," Johnson says.

Jamie Heitzenrater, a Public Ally working with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful in the Community Heights neighborhood, bounded by 10th and 21st Streets and Emerson and Arlington Avenues, says Public Allies changed her perspective.

One of her assigned tasks is the maintenance and watering of trees around the city. But her job involves more than custodial work: she also helps community members to learn how to better care for their own trees.

"The fact [that] younger people are having the community-based development mindset and going into these different organizations is a huge thing," Heitzenrater explains. "Even if you realize through this program that you are not cut out to be in the non-profit world, like I have recently, I'm looking into going to nursing school, but I can still take this idea of asset-based community development into another field."

Heitzenrater notes that Public Allies focuses on strengthening a community's assets and skills, instead of addressing more intractable infrastructure problems.

"It's given people a voice for their own community, which is [a] great value wherever you go, in any city," she says of the organization. "Indianapolis has a small town feel with opportunities for small pockets of change around the city."

Skill swap

It's that focus on a given community's assets and skills which inspired the creation of a Community Skill Swap, an initiative encouraging community members to literally swap skills that was launched by Public Allies in collaboration with the Community Heights Neighborhood Organization.

"We wanted to have them focus on the idea that they already have what they need here in the community and not to have to look outside the neighborhood to meet their needs or get help with things," Heitzenrater says. "I don't think that people are intentional about getting to know their neighbors anymore. It kind of takes you back to the front porch sitting part of getting to know your neighbors."

The locus of the Skill Swap is a map of the community that hangs on a wall at Arlington Heights Baptist Church. Post-it notes affixed beside community members' homes list useful talents offered by residents: lawn care, pet walking, babysitting, photography.

"If you have something going on with your house, you don't call someone from the other side of town to fix it, but you might call one of your neighbors to help you out," Johnson explains.

Carrie Tamminga, a Community Heights resident, says Public Allies has successfully highlighted the neighborhood's diversity.

"They take time to get to know the people they are working with and they try to fit in with the culture that already exists in that community," Tamminga explains. "It's something that is really hard to do and they have done it successfully. It ends up being beneficial for the community because then the community knows they really care, and they are being genuine."

10 years in the making

Marc McAleavey, site director for Public Allies Indianapolis, began working in earnest to create an Indianapolis chapter of the national Public Allies organization in 2008, following up on 10 years of planning. Once paperwork was in order and federal grants were assigned, the project kicked off in fall 2009.

But why Indy? McAleavey explains that Public Allies was launched to help develop leaders in communities around the country.

"The county is diversifying everyday," McAleavey says. "Today's America doesn't look like my grandparents' America, but unfortunately leadership and organizations have not necessarily followed suit. Public Allies is another attempt to find diversity in our city."

McAleavey hopes that Public Allies, with a first year in Indianapolis almost under its belt, can encourage collaboration between non-profits and community groups throughout the city.

"The number of stories that emerge from this work is really cool," McAleavey continues. "It's the kind of thing that makes cities better, it makes people stay and want to devote their time in their own communities. By seeing young adults invested in the life of their community is exactly what we need to make things better in this city and this country."

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