Tag Archives: Public Allies Chicago

Kick-Off and New Beginnings

26 Mar

After some unexpected set-backs, my service project with my fellow Allies is finally coming together. My group co-hosted a community event with our partner organization, the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society (IMAS) on the North Side of Chicago. The organization’s mission is “to foster the well-being and self-sufficiency of Iraqi refugees and immigrants in the Chicago-metro area: easing their transition to life in the United States, forging connections between Iraqi and American society, and facilitating the preservation and exchange of Iraqi culture”. With the Iraqi community in Chicago growing, IMAS  is eager to expand its programming and our project focuses on helping the staff build the infrastructure for new youth programs.

My service project team.

Our kick-off event was a great opportunity for interface with the community. Personally, I had very little knowledge of or experience with refugee groups from any background before partnering with IMAS. The opportunity to learn more about Iraqi culture and the refugee experience makes this project even more exciting. The journey began for me at the event, where I had an enlightening conversation with a community member. She approached me to ask for more information about Public Allies and my personal background. After a 40 minute conversation, I walked away feeling like I’d just met one of the most courageous women in the world. She has only lived in Chicago (and the US in general) for about 5 months, but has managed to find a new home and family here after losing her entire family in Syria. IMAS, she said, helped her come back to life. The people she has met are her new brothers and sisters. Of everything she said, one quote will probably stay with me forever:

“When people ask me how old I am, I say 5 months because when I came here 5 months ago I was reborn. It was a new beginning.”

Her attitude towards her experiences is inspiring. Personally, it reminds me to believe in the power of hope and the strength it can give you to start over.


A Lesson in Teamwork

7 Feb

As the Robert Burns poem, To a Mouse,  famously warns,  “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry).  While I’d like to claim full acceptance and understanding of this, it’s a pretty difficult reality to digest.

We go through our lives being taught the importance of time management and planning ahead. Consequently, failures and problems are often blamed on poor planning or scheduling. As an avid planner, I was excited to begin working on a team service project with some of my fellow Allies. In my mind, as long as we ironed everything out from the start, the project would unfold beautifully.

Unfortunately, life is a bit more unpredictable than that and I experienced the value of something more powerful than any agenda or time task plan: teamwork.

As the Chicago site prepared for the launch of team service projects, my team was having communication difficulties with the organization we planned to work with. Eventually we received news that our project was no longer needed by the organization. After months of work, we found ourselves worried and discouraged.

This was a critical point in our team service project experience because the situation could’ve gone in multiple directions. The worst-case nightmare scenario involved unproductive meetings, bickering, and finger-pointing, but our reality was the complete opposite. Within a week we were contacting new possible partners and arranging capacity assessment meetings, while maintaining the lighthearted optimism I love about my team. Now, we are on our way to finalizing a new project plan.

This experience is a perfect example of why I have no doubts about completing a service year with Public Allies. Serving with amazing individuals on my team service project and within my class in general is changing my perspective on how things get done in an unpredictable, dynamic world. So, I challenge Robert Burns: The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry…Unless you trust the power of teamwork and collaboration.

Opportunity is Passion

21 Dec



For me, opportunity is a chance to pursue your passions and use your talents without pressure to mold or conform.

The good economy: why I am an Ally

4 Dec

It is everywhere. We can not turn a page, begin a conversation, or send a tweet without being inundated with articles, mentions, and “likes,” intended to inform us about our economic realities. The chorus of voices and opinions meant to provide perspective or clarity coalesce, creating a narrative of a system that is outside of our influence and control. The economy can determine our fate and our recourse is to respond to its whims.

I spent two years in graduate school studying that economy but I joined Public Allies to participate in another one. Truthfully, they are one in the same. The only difference is perspective. One view is from the top. It is the realm of financial markets and the domain of those who deal in billions. It is the frenzied investment of surplus capital in exotic spaces. It is the employer of thousands and the executive who influences national leaders. In this economy we are small and without influence.

If we alter our viewpoint we can see another side. You have to descend from the top down to the city level and to the state economic development agencies. Really, you have to narrow your perspective even more to the neighborhood and community level. Our economy is here too. Here we are not without influence. We are authors of an untold economic destiny.  Here is the domain of local economic organizations. This space creates connections between community organizations and the small businesses they support. In this space those who come from impoverished backgrounds are not ignored. Here we create jobs from the ground up by talking to businesses to determine their needs. We respond by connecting each individual job-seeker with a job-creator.

Our work is to create a vibrant economy at a local level. It both informs and is informed by economic policy. While our scope may not be national, our work ripples outward from communities, to regions, to the states we labor in.

These are not fanciful notions. The organization I am placed with (LEED Council) helped create the first Planned Manufacturing District in Chicago back in 1988. This district protected industrial and manufacturing businesses from the incursion of residential developers allowing Chicago to maintain a diverse economy, encourage industrial investment, and retain high-wage jobs for lower-skilled workers. Since then, 14 such districts have been created in Chicago. They have become models for industrial and business retention efforts in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Milwaukee.

This is one success at one organization in one neighborhood. If you allow your imagination to run wild, just for a second, you can see the economy from the perspective I have been talking about. Indulge me in a small amount of math. You can multiply this work by the number of neighborhood groups, organizations, and supporters. Try to multiply their innumerable successes. Factor in intangible benefits and then multiply all of that by community, then city, and then state. This is where we write our economic destiny, and determine its legacy. This is what I call the participatory economy. We all have a part in it and if we get down in the trenches, every one of us can add our voices to change the narrative. We can speak of an economy where we are at the helm, charting the course, and implementing big ideas in small places. This is why I became a Public Ally.

Brittany VanPutten, Chicago 

Shining a Light on Youth Homelessness

4 Jun

“Listen as your day unfolds
Challenge what the future holds
Try and keep your head up to the sky”
~“You Gotta Be” by Des’ree


Right now Group Z, my Team Service Project, is in the heart of implementing our storytelling project. Our goal is to raise awareness about the realities surrounding youth homelessness through the power of storytelling. We are working closely with Alternatives, Inc, a creative arts programming and counseling organization for youth. We have managed to make great connections with a few organizations for Alternatives: La Casa Norte, Back on My Feet, Broadway Youth Center, and H.E.L.L.O. (Homeless Experts Living Life’s Obstacles, a group formed in connection with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Night Ministry.) To count, we have obtained between 15-20 stories from homeless youth and adults as well as from staff members of organizations across the city.

This project has been quite an eye opening experience. I have learned that each individual takes their homeless experience differently. Some feel overwhelming shame while others embrace their life experiences and use them to help mentor other homeless youth. One staff member from H.E.L.L.O. talked about some of her experiences being homeless in the 80’s. One story she shared was about how her co-workers had no idea that she was homeless but when they did find out, there were mixed reactions. The first group of co-workers completely distanced themselves from her despite how close she thought they were while a second group of co-workers embraced her whole-heartedly and were curious about her experiences. I cannot begin to imagine what that must have felt like but she seemed to take it all in stride.

Two amazing stories I heard were from Shaq and Robert. They do not know one another but both have been empowered through their experiences. Shaq is a musician who wants to be a voice for his community. He is currently residing in temporary housing in Chicago’s northwest side. He openly stated in his interview that he appreciated his experiences from being homeless over the past eight years. He learned to care for himself and felt as though he had matured greatly over that time. Today, he is focusing on job development with Jobs For Youth and music producing/creation.

Robert is located in a different part of the city. He is a youth leader for other youth who are homeless. Robert views those he works closely with as his family. In his interview, he referred to one of his mentees as his daughter. Like Shaq, Robert took his homeless experiences in a positive light. He finds great support from other youth who are homeless and wants to give back to his community by someday working with one of Chicago’s homeless youth organizations.

Our Kids Can Lead

2 May

“I believe the children are our future,
teach them well and let them lead the way”
~ “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston

Group photo

On Saturday, April 28th, 2012 I had the privilege of volunteering for PA Chicago’s “Our Kids Can Lead” event in Oak Brook, IL. We were there to introduce service learning to youth grades 4-9. About 22 youth attend the event. The youth worked on one of four themes: Health/fitness, Education, Environment, or Animal Welfare.

I helped six 4th-6th grade students develop the Animal Welfare project. They had a lot of great ideas about our topic: Endangered animals, adoption, homeless animals, animal cruelty, pigs, marine animals, and giant pandas. We ran a vote and animal cruelty had the majority (5 to 1). The youth then decided what type of animals should we focus on within the topic of animal cruelty: It came down to endangered animals or pets. Pets won.

Then the youth talked about what they wanted to do to raise awareness about the problem of animal cruelty. They really wanted to spread the word and suggested the following: make fliers, put ads in the newspaper, get the news involved, word of mouth, host a party, have a rock concert, and run a carnival. They also identified some organizations and individuals they could work with on the project: animal shelters, pet food/supply stores, animal care and control, pet owners, offenders (of animal cruelty), ex-offenders, and other youth.

The group decided to do a skit for their project called “Animal Rescue.” It starts with the narrator introducing the skit and two pet owners (one good and one bad) walking their dogs in the park. A police officer sees the bad owner and takes his dog to the animal shelter. From there, the youth put up fliers raising awareness about animal cruelty and we finish with a song called “Pets Need This” by the Puppy People featuring the chorus of “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. Here are a sample of the lyrics:

“What do pets need?
Pets need love.
Pets need caring…”

…Don’t worry about a thing,
Cus’ every little thing gonna be alright.
Don’t worry about a thing
Cus’ every little thing gonna be alright.”

I loved working with my group. They were very bright and enthusiastic. I know they are great leaders for their communities. Here are a few more moments from the day:

Starbucks providing snacks.


The youth getting to know one another.


volunteering poster


Free Rys Rice

Team Free Ry's Rice's Education project presentation.


Inspriation 1

Youth talking about inspiration.


More photos at Public Allies Chicago Facebook Page.

Food for Thought: What was the first time you volunteered like?
When did you realize you wanted to help others?

Chicago Americorps Week

26 Apr

“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”
~”I’d Like to Teach The World to Sing” by New Seekers

This past March for Americorp Week (March 10th-17th), I participated in two service events: one with City Year at Ryerson Elementary and one with my team service project group.

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The first set of photos in this album feature images of the murals that myself and other volunteers helped paint at Ryerson Elementary School on March 10th, 2012. I painted the image of the kangaroo and some of the words on the large wall mural. My favorite moment there was seeing the expression on the young students’ faces when they passed through the floors and saw what we had done to their school. They were so thankful for our assistance in beautifying the building. It was truly a wonderful moment.

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The second set of images are from when my team service project group making food which was served to individuals who are homeless with the Night Ministry in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago on March 17th, 2012. As you can tell from the photos, we all had a fantastic time bonding over the food preparations. We managed to prepare food for 50 individuals, all of which was used that night.

There were also many other events which happened throughout this year’s Americorp Week. Check out more photos here: PA Chicago’s Facebook Page or at My Flickr account.

Food for thought: What are some of your favorite volunteer opportunities you have been a part of?