Feb. 15, 2008
Story and pix By Ken Krayeske • 10:00 AM EST
Public Allies in Bridgeport leads a mural project at Harding High School in Bridgeport on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Click here to see more photos from that project.
My friend Fahd Vahidy never ceases to amaze me.
Last week, I called Fahd to see if he wanted to play some chess or grab a bite to eat. I got his voicemail instead.
He called me back a day or so later, from a northbound train. Turns out, Fahd, a Hartford resident, has no time for horsing around.
Fahd is executive director of Public Allies Connecticut in Bridgeport and he was down in Washington, D.C. with a crew of Nutmeggers to discuss with the staff of our Congressional delegation (minus Joe Lieberman's office, who wouldn't meet with him) Public Allies' latest achievements.
Public Allies, founded in 1992, is a not-for-profit leadership platform that serves 15 communities nationwide. Its mission is to grow a diverse leadership base of young people aged 18-30 by employing young people to become Allies.
Generally, an Ally works in an intensive year-long commitment to an community or public service organization, and receives a stipend. If it sounds like an AmeriCorps program, you’re on the right track, as Public Allies maintains a strong institutional tie-in to AmeriCorps.
Public Allies enjoys hybrid public-private financing that is the envy of most non-profits. Public Allies also has strong ties to the political world, receiving support from figures like presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Potential First Lady Michele Obama was one of the founders of Public Allies Chicago.
Down in Washington, Rep. Rosa DeLauro met Fahd and his entourage, and escorted them around the Capitol. During the course of the trip, Vahidy said the meeting with Sen. Dodd’s office was productive, as Sen. Dodd is deeply interested in leadership development and civic engagement.
Vahidy and his crew met with Rep. Joe Courtney’s legislative assistant, Ivy Mackin, and they discussed how to engage youth in civic participation. Many pundits consider that Courtney’s 83-vote margin over incumbent Republican Rob Simmons in 2006 was due to UConn students.
The way Public Allies went about lobbying the Congressional delegation was a breath of fresh air for Courtney.
“Frankly some non-profits have become part of the cynical attitude in Washington, and hire paid lobbyists to come in and do it in a very transactional kind of way, as opposed to what Public Allies did,” Courtney said Tuesday, Feb. 12.
“They brought people who were from Connecticut and experience the program and testify personally about the benefits, I find that much more persuasive. I find that it was a good trip that they made to our office.”
John Larson’s office was pleased to talk to Public Allies as well. Larson’s spokesperson Emily Barocas said that Public Allies didn’t ask for anything in particular, even though a $17 million increase for AmeriCorps is in the budget works for FY 2009.
“The Congressman is interested in working with Public Allies in the future,” Barocas said. “It was a great meeting. It is good to hear from groups like this that are engaged in working with youth and getting them away from violence, which is important to the Congressman.”
Rep. Courtney wasn't sure if the domestic expenditures would make it through Congress this year, because he said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wasn't sure if she wanted to send a budget to President Bush that he would veto anyways.
But Congress is still trying to be productive, Courtney said. Through the House Education and Labor Committee on which he serves, a bill called the Give Act would see much more than $17 million go to AmeriCorps.
The Give Act would increase the number of positions in AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 100,000 by 2012, and increase stipends for AmeriCorps volunteers from $4,725 to $5,225 by 2012. It would also create a “Summer of Service” program for middle and high school students that would reward them with a $500 stipend aimed at reducing college costs.
“That is clearly where the policy ought to go,” Courtney said. “But we need to have a president who would work with us on how to fund these priorities. The guy we are stuck for the next 11 months won’t do this.”
Courtney expressed no preference for Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, explaining that they both would be excellent for youth, but said that a presidency featuring Sen. John McCain would be disastrous.
The number of new positions for the Give Act was not pulled out of thin air, Courtney said.
“It was based on hearings, as far as waiting lists, and unfilled programs that kids would go to work tomorrow if they had the opportunity and do some incredibly positive things for communities,” Courtney said.
Ty’ese Williams, a 24-year-old Ally in Bridgeport, is one of those who are doing positive things for their communities. Williams is in the middle of his second year as an Ally, where he works to keep young people out of the criminal justice system.
Although he didn’t make the trip to Washington, DC., he said hopefully soon he will be in a position to discuss policy matters with Congressman, thanks to his work with Public Allies.
“I am more confident,” he said, after describing himself as a former knucklehead. “I didn’t think I had it in me to do the type of work I am doing, from speaking in public to marketing for a community health center for Public Allies.
“I did a violence prevention rally, a march against violence and 200 people come out,” he said. “I am just learning that I can lead. I learn so much about networking in my community that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
He joined Public Allies because he thought there was a lack of resources in my city.
“I have learned so much about my city in two years,” Williams said. “I never knew there so many people who care about the community that want to create change. I think it is a matter of empowering people to create change. When people are more empowered, more change will come about in the community.”
Which is why, he said, it is important that Fahd went down to Washington to talk with the Congressional delegation.
“If he tells some of the success stories that Public Allies has had, putting that in their ear, they will pay attention to what we are doing,” Williams said. “They have a different platform to speak on than we have. Maybe they can speak to the country, and say we are being effective, and hopefully it will be a snowball effect.”