“Public Allies” Program Could Transform Detroit

By on April 28th, 2016

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

“Public Allies” Program Could Transform Detroit

April 29, 2016

LANSING – Rae Harris was like a lot of young Detroiters three years ago: She wanted to make a difference; she wanted to make something of herself and help her city…and had no idea how to do any of that.  She had moved to Indiana for a while, then moved back home, but then lost everything in an apartment fire.

Ms. Harris was at the point of despair when a friend told her about a new program called Public Allies of Metro Detroit, aimed at creating future community leaders.

“We cultivate the talent that already exists in the Detroit region, and invest in future leaders dedicated to creating change in their communities,” the organization’s website said.  Harris doubted she’d have any chance at such a program—“It sounded too good to be true”—but she applied anyway.  “The next day, they called me for an interview!” she said.

She was accepted and served the maximum two years in the program, a part of AmeriCorps, which is also supported by private foundations.  There, she and her 30 classmates all were placed with a community organization, got 320 hours of leadership training, earned a small biweekly stipend, as well as college credits. 

Today—now a proud alumna—Rae is employed full-time at SHAR House, which focuses on helping the disadvantaged kick drug habits, while continuing to work on a Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “I’d never have gotten here without Public Allies,” she said. “It turned my life around.” 

Ishmael Ahmed is hoping Public Allies can help turn Detroit itself around. If anyone knows how to build an organization, it is the man many just call “Ish.”  Now the nation’s largest privately funded Arab-American human services organization, he was still a student himself back in the 1970s when he helped found ACCESS.  After running it for many years, he joined the governor’s cabinet as director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services.

When he left government in 2011, he joined the U of M Dearborn as associate provost for community learning.  That’s where he persuaded the university to help sponsor Public Allies, which had existed in other cities, but never before in Detroit.  Though he retired from the university last year, he doesn’t do retirement well.  Now 68, he is still heavily involved with Public Allies, helping persuade more foundations to donate money.

The idea behind the program is simple.  Metropolitan Detroit, especially the city, has perhaps as many as 200,000 young people between the ages of 17 and 30 who are neither attending school nor employed – people Public Allies refer to as “Opportunity Youth.”  This program seeks to give the best, brightest and most motivated of them a real opportunity.  The program is still in its infancy; so far, they’ve had three classes of about 30 students each.  The first year, 70 percent successfully graduated.  The last two years, it’s been 100 percent.  Of those, four out of five report they are now making more money, have been given more responsibility, and are on a clear path to their desired careers.

Dan Simmons is just finishing a year as a Public Ally.  “I was looking to do something to help my community and found out about it by using Google,” the popular search engine.  He can’t say enough for the program, which has him working at a business growth center sponsored by ACCESS, helping new businesses and entrepreneurs.  “It allows me to be my best self, to heighten my gifts and share my gifts,” he said.  “I’d go back for a second year, but I’m going to Michigan State.”  A man of wide-ranging interests, he plans to study both computer science and creative and professional writing.

Eventually, he hopes to have his own business, be a successful motivational speaker, and a creative writer.  The 26-year-old said he doubts he would be doing so without Public Allies.  Ishmael Ahmed’s dream is to come up with the funding to train 100 new allies a year. “If, after ten years, we could place a thousand young leaders in the city, it could be transformational for Detroit.” 

That may sound like one more of many pie-in-the-sky schemes for fixing Detroit. But, Ahmed has a way of doing things they’ve said were impossible—including ACCESS, which had nearly a million client visits last year—and raising the millions needed to build the magnificent National Arab-American Museum in Dearborn.  He also founded back in 1993 (and still runs) Detroit’s annual multi-ethnic music festival, the Concert of Colors, which attracts close to 100,000 people to Midtown Detroit every year in July.

Whatever else happens, he has won over his alma mater.  Tracy Hall, executive director of the office of Metropolitan Impact, said “UM-Dearborn believes that a sustained commitment to fostering the intellectual, professional and leadership development of our region’s young leaders … helps to propel the metropolitan region forward.”  They are committed to housing the program, for two big reasons: Their mission is “to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.”

And besides, well, it works.  Public Allies has just landed a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, part of which will be used for a study to determine whether they should give much more.  “I’m very excited about the potential,” Ahmed said.  He may, in fact, have a chance to carry the group’s message to a statewide audience; in a further attempt to thwart retirement, he is running for a seat on the Michigan State Board of Education this fall.  

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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