Every single person has the potential to become a leader, motivate and inspire movements. Everyone has an opportunity to take a seat at the table. That’s the message behind the tagline for Public Allies, “everyone leads.”
Public Allies is committed to advancing social justice and equity by activating leadership in everyone. Over 40 percent of their allies enter the program with no higher education or work experience; and many are transforming their lives after incarceration, fosterhood or early parenthood.
“We work to make sure that the folks who are in leadership in Milwaukee are reflected of our communities through operating a 10-month long apprentice program,” said Ashley Lee, executive director of Public Allies Milwaukee.
The program provides allies with mentors and coaches. They offer intensive, learning opportunities and center retreats around trauma and self-actualization to prepare the class for their placement in a partnered organization.
One of the concepts they tackle is the myth of meritocracy, which is the idea that political power is vested in an individual’s talent and effort rather than their social class. Lee said people are told if they work hard, go to school they will become successful but in that same breath, they are told not what you know, its who you know.
“It reinforces the negative beliefs that say, ‘You should show up a certain way then you’ll be respected,’” said Lee. “You are already amazing. The things that you think about, the way that you talk the cultural references are the things that we need to see more of in our cities.”
One of the practices Public Allies evaluates is asset-based community development, a methodology for sustainable development of communities based on everyone’s strengths and potentials.
“So often we hear about how statistics in Milwaukee are terrible and how communities in Milwaukee are so disadvantaged but we never talk about what’s beautiful about a neighborhood,” said Lee.
Lee used her upbringing to break down the method. Although she didn’t grow up around money, she wasn’t aware she was poor until college when an example was made out of her financial status. Lee said when people bring up statistics it’s an outsider looking in that’s not taking the time to get to know the community.
“I thought about the joy and strength of the people,” said Lee. “How the businesses in my neighborhood and how they were part of my lived experience.”
One of the ways to understand your part is to recognize and challenge your privilege. Often time when we think about the privilege we associate it with whiteness but that is one of the many forms. Lee said as a light-skinned multi-racial woman she has light skin, passing privilege. She has an educational privilege and hierarchical power in our organization.
“When I talk about my experience I can no longer say I understand the experience of people who have the most proximity to oppression,” said Lee.
Focusing your attention on guilt and shame gets in the way of learning and “doing the work,” a phrase Lee kept mentioning, I was curious to hear what that looked like for her.
“I do the work when someone who has a lot more power over me does something and I called them out,” said Lee. “When I apologize to a core member when unintentionally harmed then or when don’t defend the way things were. We do the work when we actively move toward what we know is a better way of being.”
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