Michelle: the Public Allies Connection

Biography of Michelle Obama offers insights into her work with Public Allies.picture-161

Liza Mundy has recently published her biography of the future first lady called Michelle: A Biography.

USA Today excerpted the book earlier this month. Below are some pieces of that excerpt, regarding both Obamas’s work with the national service corps Public Allies.

If Michelle was helpful to Barack, the converse was also true. In the early 1990s, Barack was on the founding board of Public Allies, a new nonprofit whose mission was to train young people to work in the nonprofit sector, with the hope of producing a fresh generation of public service leaders. The Chicago branch needed an executive director, and Obama suggested Michelle. In 1993, she was hired. Barack resigned from the board before she took over. …

According to Julian Posada, her deputy director at Public Allies, Michelle was as hardworking as her husband. Public Allies would soon become part of the Clinton administration’s AmeriCorps program, and she was determined that the Chicago branch would succeed and excel, which it did. Among other things, she was a zealous money raiser, and left the organization, three years after starting, with cash in the bank. “There was an intensity to her that — you know, this has got to work, this is a big vision, this isn’t easy,” recalls Posada. “Michelle’s intensity was like: we have to deliver.” He was impressed with her sleeves-up attitude. “I’m sure she came from a lot more infrastructure. There was no sense that this was a plush law firm, that’s all gone. It’s like, ‘Who’s going to lick envelopes today?’ Nothing was beneath her.”

One of the first orders of business was recruiting “allies,” young people who picture-17would spend ten months working in homeless shelters, city offices, public policy institutes, and other venues for public service. Allies were recruited from campuses and projects alike. Michelle knocked on doors in Cabrini Green, a notoriously rough public housing project, but also phoned friends to ask if they knew any public-spirited undergrads at Northwestern. “We would get kids from a very very lily-white campus to come sit down with inner-city kids, black, Hispanic, Asian,” says Posada. In addition to recruiting and managing allies, she had to raise funds from Chicago’s well-established foundations, competing with more established charities. As such, she had to be in touch with the old-money world of private philanthropy and the no money world of housing projects, moving easily between almost every world that existed in Chicago. …

Many allies found Michelle inspiring. “You kind of know when you’re in the presence of somebody who is really terrific,” says Jobi Petersen, who was in the first class of Chicago Allies. “I owed a lot to her. She’s really fair, she’s calm, she’s smart, and she’s balanced and she’s funny, she doesn’t take any crap. I get a little bit angry when I hear the thing about her being negative. She is the least negative person I’ve ever met. She is a can-do person.” Peterson remembers a time when “one of the allies was despairing about how difficult things were, or the world wasn’t bending their way, and [Michelle] would come back and say, ‘You know what, today you have to get up and do something you don’t love doing. If it’s helping people, it’s worth it.’ She had a way of making you feel you could do anything. Humor, personal style, warmth, she can be strong and tough and not come across as nega-tive. She’s got timing. She can pass you one look and you’d laugh.”

Public Allies has enjoyed the spotlight since the election due to its history with the Obamas in Chicago. Paul Schmitz, the program’s C.E.O., serves on the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform working group for President-Elect Obama’s transition team.

Public Allies is a 10-month service and leadership program that serves in 15 cities across the United States.  Corps members — called “Allies” — serve with nonprofits and universities to “create, improve and expand services that address diverse issues, including youth development, education, public health, economic development and the environment.”

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Obamas, Public Allies in the Spotlight

Service program receives more, positive, media attention while solving tough social problems for communities and offering professional growth for corps members.


Public Allies has received a lot of tough press among obscure blogs this year, but with established connections to the future President and First-Lady, the outlook in the media has just gotten brighter for the national, Milwaukee-based AmeriCorps program.

Here are just a couple news items involving Public Allies in the past week since the election:

The National Public Radio show Morning Edition mentioned Public Allies this morning in a discussion of Michelle Obama’s executive experience since graduating from law school. She was the founding Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago.

The San Francisco Chronicle published this article about social entrepreneurs’s hopes for the new administration. The New York Post ran an article on Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama chatted last week with a Newsweek journalist about her experience with Public Allies and the future of national service generally:

[Richard Wolffe:] You want to continue what you did with Public Allies (which trains young people to become leaders of community groups and nonprofits) as First Lady. What’s your thinking on how to go about that?

images[Michelle Obama:] Barack is talking about a deeper investment in national service; that’s been part of his platform. He’s been meeting with some of the leadership of the AmeriCorps national-service movements—the Public Allies, the Teach for Americas, the City Years of the World—and figuring out how do we use that model, expand upon it, and help use that as a more creative way to defray the costs of college for young people and get all Americans really engaged. What AmeriCorps showed me, during the time that I worked on it, is that all these resources of young people, and not-so-young people, as I call them—because AmeriCorps is not just for young adults but people of all ages—you can fill a lot of gaps with the help of community-service hours. The young people in my program worked as program directors. They worked with kids and they worked in parks and they worked with nonprofit organizations that didn’t have the resources to bring people in full time. So this is one of those clear win-wins. You can help kids pay for school, you can get needed man-hours into really critical things like the environment, senior care, Head Start—a whole range of things. And you get the country more focused on giving back.

Earlier this year, Fast Company named Public Allies and its President and CEO Paul Schmitz one of the top 45 Social Entrepreneurs Who Are Changing the World.

11/12/08 an article about Public Allies appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

11/13/08 in Canada’s National Post.

What is Public Allies?

Public Allies is a 10-month service and leadership program that serves in 15 cities across the United States.  Corps members — called “Allies” — serve with nonprofits and universities to “create, improve and expand services that address diverse issues, including youth development, education, public health, economic development and the environment.”

The monthly stipend (at $1300-$1800) is higher than many AmeriCorps programs, and Allies are eligible for the $4725 AmeriCorps education award at the end of the term. But the best benefit of the program may be its extraordinary training opportunities. This, from the Public Allies web site:

A rigorous leadership development curriculum delivered by community leaders, practitioners and educators, which includes:

  • Intensive weekly skill training and leadership development seminars
  • Critical feedback, reflection, and personal coaching toward individual performance and professional goals
  • Community building and team projects with a diverse cohort of peers
  • Presentations of learning at the end of the year to demonstrate how one met the learning outcomes of the program

Good news for Public Allies and for national service

Not only Public Allies stands to benefit from the media attention, but national service as a whole does as well, including efforts like Service Nation, the campaign for expanded funding for service.

Besides the media attention, no president has had as much direct experience with the challenges and opportunities of national service as President-Elect Obama, who was a founding board member of Public Allies Chicago. He stepped down from his board post before Michelle Obama joined as staff.

Read more

Read more about applying to Public Allies, its distinguished alumni network, hiring a graduating Ally for your organization, hosting an Ally at your organization, and the program’s legacy of achievement.

On Michelle Obama and Public Allies, check out the Public Allies factsheet, and look for this year’s Michelle: A Biography by Liza Mundy at your local library.