Tag Archives: Public Allies DC

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

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Welcome to the Trenches

18 Feb

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Fresh from the classrooms of Butler University, I moved to DC this fall to participate in Public Allies. I was partnered with Metro Teen AIDS, where my job involves facilitating Spanish-language comprehensive sexual education workshops in DC Public Schools. On my first day, a school social worker pulled me aside and declared, “Welcome to the trenches of reproductive health. When you enter that classroom, you’re truly a foot soldier, so prepare to get your feet dirty. Are you sure you can handle these students?” doubt inscribed into the lines on her face as she sized up my small frame and bright, eager eyes.

At the school of the skeptical social worker, I led a game called “myths and facts” with my class of 30 Latino students. One of the most common myths the students believed was that, if a woman has an irregular cycle, she is definitely pregnant. I asked them to recall our previous lessons and to brainstorm other reasons why a person might skip her period. One young female raised her hand and responded, “Ooh I remember! When we were learning about STIs, you told us that it can be a symptom of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea!” Immediately upon hearing this fact, a 19-year-old male student in the front row began shaking and shot his hand into the air. “Ms. Angela, Ms. Angela!” he exclaimed, “I haven’t gotten my period yet! Does that mean I have Chlamydia?” Several students laughed, others looked equally concerned. My poker face intact, I calmly explained the basic concept of menstruation and its link to reproduction. He seemed reassured, but my conception of common knowledge was shattered.

My mission for my Public Allies’ year is to empower DC youth by giving them the information they need to make responsible life choices when it comes to their health. Every day, this task is challenged by the complex realities of our nation’s capitol. My students face a multitude of barriers- from a lack of resources to stressful home lives to language differences- in their quest to climb out of the trenches and to reach adulthood safely. However, these obstacles only solidify the importance of organizations like Public Allies and Metro Teen AIDS. For students in DC, the partnership between PA and MTA embodies the audacious belief that youth from all backgrounds have the agency to live productive and healthy lives.

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As an International Studies major, I was accustomed to discussing critical issues. I could rattle off alarming statistics, such as that “three in ten teen girls in the US will get pregnant at least once before age 20” (www.itsyoursexlife.org). MTA has given me the opportunity to work with the youth behind these statistics and to put my critical thinking abilities into practice. For young professionals, the PA year represents an opportunity to learn about vital topics through an immersive experience. When combined, my undergraduate degree and my PA experience have endowed me with the skills required to succeed in today’s complex society. After all, the real world is much messier than any textbook (or blog post) could convey.

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~ Angela Miller

Photos from top:

Despite snow flurries, Jamal, Angela, and Mike give condoms in the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC.

Angela, Mike, Ona, Charlie, Januari, and Zoe hand out condoms outside the Anacostia Metro Station.

MTA’s testing van enables youth to get tested anywhere in the city.

United in Service

30 Jan

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“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Saturday, January 19th, the city of Washington came together to honor Dr. King. Public Allies led a day of service, bringing together 250 volunteers from a variety of backgrounds. Our community that day included 125 Public Allies staff and corps members from Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC. We were joined by over 100 high school students and teachers from Anacostia and Friendship Collegiate Academy. Our special guests for the day included Chelsea Clinton, chair of Inaugural National Day of Service, Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies, Senator Harris Wofford and Bill Basil, current AmeriCorps Director.

The day was divided into three units: Let’s Serve, Let’s Move, and Let’s Lead. In the Let’s Move station, Playworks corps members invited teenagers and adults to embrace the benefits of exercise, swirling hula hoops and running around the gym. In the Let’s Lead room, allies facilitated a discussion on the legacy of Dr. King, brainstorming how his teachings can shape our lives. The Let’s Serve unit focused on a number of hands-on projects, ranging from a mural painting to a food drive.

My team had just entered the Let’s Serve station, located in the school’s cafeteria, when Chelsea Clinton arrived. We gathered around the lunch tables as she gave an inspirational speech about how her upbringing emphasized the importance of community service. Her father, former President Bill Clinton, established AmeriCorps under the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. After sharing her personal story with us, Ms. Clinton said that she was eager to lend a hand. She joined our group, helping to put together 600 bags of food for Bread for the City. Beans, noodles, and tuna fish were passed along an assembly line as we all joked and chatted, getting to know one another. The high school students on our team opened up, confiding in the former first daughter their goals and aspirations for the future. Several stated that they wanted to join AmeriCorps, others wanted to go to college or to join the military. All seemed encouraged by the message of the day: “We Still Have the Dream.” In other words, we, as a community, will support you as you pursue your dream.

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In my experience as a recent transplant to our nation’s capital, DC remains segregated by ward, class, and ethnicity. There’s Congress, and then there’s Congress Heights. Living here, it often feels as though there are multiple cities, intersecting only at crowded metro stations as strangers impolitely bump against each other in an attempt to quickly get out of the tunnels. Through events like the National Day of Service, Public Allies connects people from different worlds. For four hours on a Saturday morning, we were united by the idea that we all have the power to be change agents in our communities. But the effort has to reach beyond one day of action. I plan to continue working to bridge the gaps in DC, and I hope that you will join me.

As Dr. King argued, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

For more pictures of the day, check out the Public Allies Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/publicallies/sets/72157632576862845/

Exploring the world, one page at a time

15 Mar

A few weeks ago a representative from FHI360 called me at my partner organization with an interesting proposition. He was working with the State Department to bring a group of five female Iraqi playwrights to America. They had a 3-stop tour planned, DC was their first destination, and he wanted to know if we were interested in organizing a visit with a teacher in a public high school.

I e-mailed Sarah Elwell, head librarian at Bell Multicultural High School right away. She got back to me and within hours the visit was set for March 7th with students from her lunchtime book club.

We had hosted several visits with the book club before. Ms. Elwell is a complete expert: always setting the visiting author at ease, thoroughly preparing her students (who consistently ask incisive, interesting questions), and providing ever-important snacks. But, in most cases, students are prepared in advance of every visit. They have read work by the author, discussed it extensively, and, in the case of Ms. Elwell’s students, usually prepared beautiful art projects expressing the central themes of the book. This visit was different. Because the writers write in their native Arabic or Farsi, the students did not have material to read in advance.

The playwrights answer student questions

But from the first moment, it was clear that the students and writers connected. As each writer shared her personal struggle as a woman writing in a male-dominated industry and living in a male-dominated society (to put it delicately), the students sat riveted, nodding their heads with understanding, commiseration, and sympathy. I don’t think that I can state it better than Reyna Rios, a senior at Bell, did in a blog entry on my partner organization’s website: “They constantly had to fight to live a life they loved. They were inspirational women and they didn’t deserve my disrespect.”

The playwrights pose with students in Ms. Elwell's book club

Personally, the visit hit home for a different reason. After one of the students asked for advice on how to become a better writer, one of the playwrights responded by encouraging the students to not only read, but to also read a diverse range of books. “You have to learn about the world,” she said via a translator. “I walked les Champe-Elysées in the pages of a book, without ever going to Paris. I want you to walk our streets, learn about our country.”

I read a lot. Like, multiple-books-per-week a lot, but I don’t usually step outside of my comfort zone and read literature that is not Western (i.e. from a “developed” nation in North America or Western Europe). As a New Year’s resolution, I resolved to read from different genres — it used to be all fiction, all the time — but I still gravitate towards the familiar. There are so many corners of the world to explore, and even more great books  by fantastic writers. It’s hard to know where to begin, but I do know that I will be taking recommendations!

MLK Day of Service Part II: The Discussion

7 Feb

If you want to read about how Public Allies DC spent the morning of our day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., check out my previous blog entry.

After our morning spent marching  parade, we transitioned from the frigid outdoors into the Salvation Army building in historic Anacostia to host a film screening and community discussion.  The event brought filmmakers together with allies in an ally-facilitated discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in communities around the country.

The film, called the MLK Streets project, is a collaboration between local filmmakers and DC Public High School students.  Together, they traveled around the country to over a dozen different streets named for Dr. King and interviews people about what life is like in that neighborhood.  The project was inspired by a very famous Chris Rock bit, in which he  notes the irony in the fact that streets named after Dr. King are often marked by violence:

You know what’s wild? Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a [expletive] where you at in America, if you on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.

Despite the fact that Rock makes light of this pattern, the filmmakers were interested in the grain of truth behind the joke.  There are hundreds of streets in America named after Dr. King and nearly all of them run through black communities overrun by poverty and violence.  Why is it, then, that the namesake streets of a man who dedicated his life to peace and alleviation of poverty never reflect his vision for a brighter future?

After viewing the film, a group of allies initiated discussion with special guests, including co-producers of the film and one of my fellow allies who talked about attending school just off of DC’s Martin Luther King Avenue.

MLK Day of service part 1: the parade

6 Feb

Here in DC our day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began early.  We gathered in Southeast, layered in wool socks, long underwear, and our new Public Allies hoodies and prepared to take part in a local tradition: the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday parade.

Though the parade is a long-standing tradition — dating back to before the third Monday in January had even been designated a day of memorial for the late Dr. King — it has not always been held on MLK day, and some years it was not held at all.  An article in the Washington Post perfectly captured the atmosphere that morning, a mixture of reverence for the legacy of a hero and a sense of unity in celebrating the homecoming of a beloved tradition.

I could sense it, too, as my fellow allies and I walked the parade route, which traced Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue from St. Elizabeth’s hospital to Leckie Elementary School.  Everyone, from the hundreds of people that lined the parade route to the many groups who had patiently lined up hours in advance in the frigid weather hoping to honor Dr. King’s memory in their own way.  I was struck by the sheer number of participants in the parade.  We marched right between a local small business that organizes birthday parties and a group of students from Sasha Bruce Youthwork who were gaining some service hours by marching.  There were marching bands, drum corps, cheerleaders of all ages, traditional Bolivian dancers, and, of course Public Allies DC.

The experience wasn’t perfect.  It was a cold day and our brand new sweatshirts, though incredibly stylish, were not the warmest form of outerwear.  But, after a little reflection, I remembered an anecdote that Dr. King told after his 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery.  He recalled a 71-year-old woman who, during the Montgomery bus boycott refused a ride:

one day, she was asked while walking if she didn’t want to ride. And when she answered, “No,” the person said, “Well, aren’t you tired?” And with her ungrammatical profundity, she said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”  And in a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested.

Granted, Dr. King marched 54 miles over 5 days, while we only walked 2 miles.  But the sentiment is definitely valuable, both for me reflecting on my experiences on MLK Day, and for all of us who experience setback.  That morning my feet were tired, but through walking in the parade, being a part of such a powerful tradition, and realizing that my presence was felt, I hope that my soul got a little rest.  Since then, I have tried to approach my work in a way that, even when my figurative feet metaphorically hurt, I keep my rested soul in mind.  My Public Allies experience has and continues to empower me to do work that I am truly passionate about, and that has to mean my soul (if not my body) is resting well.

Are you curious about how Public Allies DC spent the afternoon? Stay tuned for part 2 of my reflection on this years MLK Day of Service. 

There are clichés for a reason

7 Dec

I feel like it is absolutely the most clichéd thing in the world for an educator to say that her students inspire her. It reeks of the Disneyfied tales of teachers who taught their students about math and literature while the students taught them about Life. But the students that I work with are bright, funny, candid and, honestly, incredibly inspiring. So, cue the dramatic music, the misty eyes, and the impassioned vocal inflection because things are about to get earnest.

A few weeks ago I was at a book club meeting in a New Heights Teen Parent Center. New Heights is an amazing program that works with pregnant and parenting high school students to ensure that students have the support and resources needed to succeed in school. Our book clubs meet at lunchtime in two D.C. Public High Schools (we are expanding to three new schools next semester), where we discuss local, contemporary writers in order to foster a love of literature that students will pass along to their children.

That week we were discussing a book called Paint Me Like I Am, which is a collection of poetry written by students in the WritersCorps program in San Francisco, the Bronx, and Washington, D.C.

Paint Me Like I Am, a compilation of poems by high school students that participate in WritersCorp

We had just read a poem called “I Too Am America,” modeled after the famous Langston Hughes poem, I, Too, Sing America.” And the poems launched the students into a discussion about what it means to be an American today.

Many of the students’ comments echoed the cries of nationwide Occupy protesters.  “America is made up of so many different people, but it is controlled by so few,” one student pointed out, perfectly summarizing the primary concern of the 99%. Another student talked about how hard it is to find a job in her neighborhood and in her words I could hear a nuanced critique of late capitalism and its detrimental effects on her community.

We then did a six-line poetry exercise where students completed the phrases, “I am,” “I wonder,” “I hear,” “I see,” “I want,” and “I am.” For the record, I am a horrendous poet and my poem was appropriately terrible, but the students wrote amazing and, yes, inspiring poems. Somehow they seamlessly transitioned from talking about what it is like to be disenfranchised, marginalized, and devalued by society to writing poetry about being “black and beautiful,” and the “best version of myself.”

That transition is what stuck with me the most after the meeting. So often I see people, myself included, define themselves by their circumstances. We allow ourselves to become numbers or percentage points because we can feel people in power pushing us into those roles.  The “I Am” poems reminded me that I don’t have to resign myself to a label that someone else places on me. I can and should be more like those students who tell the world every day that they are beautiful and strong and powerful.