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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Youth Leaders

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The term “community leader” has gained added respect since Barack Obama’s presidential run, especially among the nation’s youth. However, it’s an organization named Public Allies, set up by two women in Washington, D.C., well before Obama’s political ascent, that has helped to turn community development into a viable career path for youths inducted into its programs. Among them is UW-Madison graduate and Milwaukee South Side native Adriana Rodriguez, who joined Public Allies Milwaukee’s 10-month AmeriCorps program last year. As part of the program, she’s been working with New Moon Productions and Stand Together Milwaukee, organizing local screenings of a three-part film series portraying gun violence as a public health issue. So far screenings have taken place at venues like the Riverwest Center and the COA Goldin Center. On April 30 the team hosts their grand finale at the Modjeska Theatre (1128 W. Mitchell St.) at 7 p.m.

Have you seen a greater interest in community leadership in your generation since Obama’s historic victory?

I do think it’s energized people of my generation. We’re old enough to appreciate it and young enough to see the potential of it.

People often upbraid your generation about their apathy toward political and social issues. Is this a fair assessment?

I think we get disappointed and feel as if our youth is apathetic, but being a Public Ally has really re-energized me, seeing how passionate people in my program are about different issues in our community and the world in general and are able to bring that to a larger table.

What particular needs do you identify in the Latino community in which you grew up?

As far as community issues go, I really think we need more role models—community leaders you can connect with and identify with. And also being able to create conversations about things like oppression and language barriers, immigration. I think we don’t talk about those things enough. Even looking at gender roles Latino families hold, it’s really hard for women to break out of them, but also for men to break out of the strong, unemotional breadwinner model.

Public Allies’ growth strategy is based on the idea that there will be a cache of jobs in nonprofits awaiting those trained in this program. Does that seem less certain now, given the economic decline?

Public Allies is still seen as national service and we’re still a federally funded program, so it’s a way to get really quality individuals of a range of experience at a lower cost than you’d normally have to pay because we have federal money invested in the program. So I think it’s a great way for us to get our foot in the door, but I can’t say what would happen when we’re done with the program, given the economic situation. I think that Obama has sort of called attention to the need for public service, which is what Public Allies focuses on, but also emphasizing the importance of putting money aside for public good.

Why did you choose this media project with New Moon Productions and Stand Together Milwaukee?

A lot of us are really intrigued by the idea of media activism—using a documentary to open the door to a dialogue and being able to incorporate our own interests into it. We did an art-based forum for one of the screenings. All projects have some mobilization aspect, but we thought this one would really give an opportunity to mobilize our community against something that really affects the entire Milwaukee area.

Adriana Rodriguez and friends | Photo by Robb Quinn