Tag Archives: community

An Interview with Nakeisha Neal Jones

3 Apr

In honor of AmeriCorps week last month, I had the opportunity to speak with the Executive Director of Public Allies DC (PADC), Nakeisha Neal Jones. Nakeisha completed the Public Allies  program in Washington, DC. in 1997 and led the same program’s re-launch in 2010. As someone who has experienced being an Ally as well as a staff member, Nakeisha offers an inspirational perspective on the value of AmeriCorps.

Why Service Matters

“Service can build relationships between people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” explained Nakeisha. “From my own experience, it can also help you learn more about a community. When I got to college, I decided to volunteer to get off campus. I think it was really good for me because I felt like I lived at Duke and not in Durham.” Similarly, service has the power to change the individual as much as it improves the society. For instance, volunteering taught Nakeisha that “we’re all linked” and enabled her to “use that (philosophy) as a routine way to live. That gift is more valuable than some of things that I’ve done.”

Public Allies’ Assets

Nakeisha believes that PADC can help solve the challenges currently facing our nation’s capital.  Too often DC is divided between the “haves and the have-nots,” lacking a space for “unusual suspects to come together to solve local issues.” By engaging diverse groups that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to work together, PADC builds sustainable solutions to community problems.

Public Allies’ Values

The value that Nakeisha uses most is “continuous learning,” or “the ability to question assumptions and beliefs, understand strengths and shortcomings, and commit to continued growth within a community context.” As Nakeisha explained, “it’s important for us to know why our actions are successful” as well as why we repeat the same mistakes. As change agents, we must study our errors and be open to altering ingrained habits.

From Ally to Executive Director

When Nakeisha was an ally, PADC challenged her “because there were many opportunities for me to reflect on what I valued and why. I realized that some of the beliefs that I held really weren’t as important as I thought they were. The group challenged me to deal with diversity, authenticity and community on a much deeper level that I had experienced before Public Allies. It was wonderful, but the change didn’t always feel good.” Nakeisha returned to PADC to rebuild an organization that shaped her own life path. Her experiences as an ally inspired her to “live the values, do what’s hard, and learn from mistakes,” philosophies that influence how she directs the program today.

The Future of Service

The goal for PADC is to imagine our community in 2023 and to ask ourselves, “What can we say that we had a hand in creating?” Hopefully, we will have built a “healthy, vibrant, relevant, and sustainable leadership pipeline for social good” that is ultimately using Public Allies values, tools, and relationships to solve long-standing community problems.

Final Thoughts

AmeriCorps and other service opportunities help generate a community-oriented culture where it is “normal to give time, talent, and money to other people or causes.” After all, “there’s a role for everyone. We all have strengths. If you’re doing something that’s helping to build a community that’s larger than yourself with whatever time you have, then I’m happy.”

~Angela Miller


Wisdom from my Coworker

7 Mar

As my coworker Martha and I got on the bus together one morning, a tiny old woman in a big overcoat sitting at the front of the bus waved at Martha. She waved back, smiling wide. The woman said something I didn’t catch in Spanish and Martha nodded vigorously, saying, “Yea, yea, yea!”

“I don’t remember who she is,” she muttered to me a few moments later, and I laughed. As we exited, another person waved and then a tall man in a puffy blue jacket stopped to talk to us on the sidewalk. Martha hugged him and asked about his mother, the Laundromat she runs, and the hair salon that he runs. We got stopped on the street two more times this way on our way back to the office.

Martha knows everyone, or knew everyone at some time, or treats everyone like she knows them. After 17 years as a housing counselor at St. Nicks Alliance, it is no wonder that she knows so many people in the neighborhood, and that she can’t keep track of them all.

What’s more, she adores strangers. When we call to order pizza for a meeting, she banters with the pizza man as if they’re old friends, then admits she has never met him. She flirts with the cab driver and gives her dinner to him, pollo y arroz con gandules, wrapped up in styrofoam. She spends an extra minute at the bodega counter as we buy ice, checking on how the worker’s week has been.

One evening in October she told me something simple that still sticks with me. Walking out of the office together, Martha waved at three men who always hang out on a certain stoop on Powers Street, cursing and smoking. They all waved back, calling “Marta!” fondly. As we got out of earshot, she told me:

“Kelly– always be friendly to everyone in your neighborhood, even if you don’t know them. You never know when it will save you.”

She told me about a time that she was visiting the tenants in a building across the street from the bodega where we buy ice. As she left, the landlord confronted her on the stoop, yelling at her about talking to the tenants about their rights:

“He was two inches from my face,” Martha said, “and raising up his hand as if to strike me, and the man at the deli saw and came out to the sidewalk, and yelled, ‘HEY! What’s going on!?’ And the landlord went inside real quick, you can bet.” She laughed.

“People usually won’t go that much out of their way for strangers– they won’t get involved. But if they know you, it’s different.”

I laughed with her, so proud to be walking beside her in a world of people that seem to love and need her so.


Martha at our office holiday party.

Keeping Students from Falling Through the Cracks

13 Nov

Imagine for a minute you are back in high school. You have a single parent at home. You work to support your family. Sometimes you wonder if there will be food on the table when you get home for dinner. At school you have trouble focusing, and you often ask why you’re even there. You want to go to college, but don’t think you’re smart enough or have enough money to succeed, so what’s the point of trying?

For many high school students today, especially in struggling urban communities, this isn’t an exercise in imagination, but a daily reality. Add to this mix very tight school budgets and overworked school staff, and you begin to see why so many students struggle, and many fall through the cracks of high school and drop out.

There are, however, some programs in schools that try to fill those cracks to keep students from falling through. One of those programs is Student Space, a pilot program in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the result of a collaboration between the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership (RYASAP), Public Allies Connecticut, and Bridgeport Public Schools.

The Student Space is a physical space located in Bridgeport’s three big public high schools: Bassick, Central, and Harding. The program is meant to connect students to resources they need both inside and outside the school.  It helps form collaborations between schools and community programs that students can access to help them achieve in school.

Darrel is one student referred to Student Space because of his low grades and poor attendance. The process starts when a Student Space staff member pulls him out of his gym class and walks Darrel to the Student Space, explaining why he was referred and that the program is there to support him. Darrel is given an opportunity to talk about his life outside of school and how he struggles to complete his work at home and doesn’t really feel connected to the school community. Darrel then mentions he enjoys writing poetry. The Student Space staff member tells Darrel he will look into getting a tutor for him and that he should come back to discuss planning a poetry event at the school.

This example highlights one of the most important aspects of the Student Space program, individual conversations. When we think about our daily lives, many of us don’t get a lot of time to sit down and talk while someone else just listens. A lot of our students feel the same way. That is why we focus on individual conversations so we can learn about what a student’s needs are and connect them to the proper resources.

As the year continues, we hope that our pilot program can begin affecting change both for individual students and for the school community as a whole. We hope through our support and our increasing connections to community agencies that we can help students who never believed they could succeed do just that. We know that these students have what it takes to make it, and we are going to work our hardest throughout the year to make sure that they do.

This is Why My Hart Beats

17 Jul

Below is my letter to the panelists reviewing my Presentation of Learning. It’s been a great year!

Dear Panel Members:

Thank you for taking the time to be here today. In the tale of my 22 months here in Hartford, this presentation marks the final chapter. You have all been central to my story and are central to the community that I have identified so strongly with.

During my initial Public Allies interview, I was asked, “How do you define community?” I hashed together a few thoughts and examples which I won’t bore you with. The truth is, I didn’t know. The only reason coherent sentences came out of my mouth was because in my first 7 months in Hartford I had began to grasp the concept of community. I want to remind you today that the term ‘community’ is abstract and difficult to grasp for most people in your community. All of us here have some understanding that ‘community’ means something different to each person, but do we understand that not everyone has had the experience necessary to define community for themselves? Just as an Oceanographer understands deep sea carbon sequestration and an Educator understands Piaget’s conservation of mass experiment and a Mathematician understands how to calculate the volume of a solid with rotational symmetry using disk integration and a Psychologist understands that there actually is no such thing as multi-tasking and a Philosopher can tell you that this list is actually an attempt at a logical statement…  a Public Ally understands community. And a good Political Scientist understands how important that is. There is an important distinction, however, between all of these seemingly analogous statements. Understanding community through my time with Public Allies gave me a passion for learning and work that was absent in all the other fields. That is a lesson so valuable that it may take me a lifetime to figure out what it’s worth, but I’ll wager it’s worth something close to a lifetime.

So now I close the book on my time here in Hartford, taking with me lessons and relationships that will last forever. I have confidence in my abilities, I think I’ve learned a tinge of modesty, I’ve developed new skills, and I’m beginning to understand who I am. I’ll never forget the community where all of this came to happen because, by my definition, my community here in Connecticut was the first community I was ever a part of.

Thank you for letting me ramble on, for letting me start sentences with conjunctions and end them with prepositions, and for being some of the most important people in my life.


Philip Drew – Hartford, CT

Building community through the arts

23 Dec

Public Allies New York (PANY) has a monthly Everyone Leads Conversation Series (I would be curious to know if you do this at other sites, Allies). This month’s conversation was particularly interesting because the topic was Building Community through the Arts featuring the following panel:

Lately I have been really wondering about impact the arts may have on community and this panel came at a very welcome time. Check out the video below to find out more…

Ezra Ezzard, a PANY alumnus, mentions at the end of the video that art is always around us (he mentions Starbucks and the Barack Obama campaign), and that we take it for granted. This theme came up a lot in the discussion and was a possible reason why we consciously don’t think about the importance of art. Charles Alvarez, PANY ’12, said “Everything you do is art related…everyone has something to say.”

As far as art’s impact on the community, Risë Wilson asked herself how art can make a community space and she started the Laundromat Project. She wanted to find out how culture is a force in change, and how people disenfranchised with culture can have a revitalized spirit in their individual lives.

Allies discussing the panel’s comments.

Sheila McDaniel and Charles Rice Gonzalez touched on another point Ezra mentioned in saying that art has the power to affect the community economically especially in New York City. Both Harlem and Hunts Point (where the Studio Museum and BAAD are located, respectively) had seen an improvement once their institutions arrived in the community. Merchants followed the artists, and there was a gentrification in the neighborhoods.

Our Program Managers Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario, Sabine Blaizin and Max Chang.

Eddie Gonalez-Novoa, PANY Executive Director and panel moderator, says in the video that the dichotomy of social services and the arts is a false one, and Shelia agreed that you have to get away from either/or (i.e. fire departments, education, police), not to pit them against each other.

Education and the arts was another topic that Kate Shaffer, PANY ’12, explored by reminding us that schools improve when the students are engaged on something that isn’t on a test, and wondered how we could bring art to a math class.

The beautiful, festive art space at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance

The most interesting topic of conversation to me was how we can use art as a tool to improve other organizations in our community, as second-year Ally Cea Weaver asks. She mentioned art in homeless shelters as a way of interacting with peers, and using art for things that might be more pressing. Joanne Sterling, PANY ’12, said, “Art is a form of revolution, making your experiences tangible…expressing what society tells us is real.”

Join the conversation: What do you think about what was expressed that day? What did we leave out? Why is art important to you?