Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Ava Hernandez is in her second year as executive director of Public Allies Milwaukee, a branch of a national nonprofit organization affiliated with AmeriCorps. Every year, Public Allies accepts 45 young adults who work at local community organizations. In 2016, the allies are partnering with 35 Milwaukee organizations, including the Girl Scouts of Southeast Wisconsin, Urban Underground, Aurora Community Health Clinic at Walker’s Point and Sixteenth Street Clinic. Allies must have a high school diploma or GED, be a U.S. citizen or have permanent residency and be at least 17 years old.
Q: What are your responsibilities as executive director of Public Allies?
A: I make sure that Public Allies continues to make its impact in the community. I oversee a team of program managers, who in turn oversee our allies, who partner with community organizations. I work to build partnerships with nonprofits that host Public Allies. I do fundraising and strategic planning. I make sure we have a strong connection to AmeriCorps.
Q: What is the most difficult part of running a nonprofit?
A: The hardest part so far is having confidence in the decisions I make. When a lot of the accountability stops at me, I have to be responsible and accountable for decisions. On a personal level, it’s creating the space for self-care. There is never a shortage of work. There is never a shortage of issues we are addressing. There are fires — big and small — we’re trying to put out. Days go by fast here, so I surround myself with people who support me. That’s really important when running a nonprofit.
Q: How would you describe the culture at Public Allies?
A: We are very collaborative. We wouldn’t exist without that collaborative spirit within our organizations. We are only as effective as our partnerships, and the way our allies work with their organizations to lead, grow and do meaningful work.
Q: What do you want to see the allies accomplish after going through this program?
A: We work to help support them as they begin to think critically about root causes of injustice in our community. We work with them to develop their social justice leadership, so I teach them to look at issues of systemic oppression. I tell them to look at what things that have been in place locally and nationally contribute to the disparities in Milwaukee. We do a lot of anti-oppression work. We want them to help dismantle racism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism and ageism. We want them to look at how these issues intersect within the communities, which shapes how our allies address these issues.
Q: How do you prepare allies to do this work?
A: We address issues and think how we can solve them in terms of the strengths of the community and not just the disparities. The allies also participate in a Milwaukee 101 program that gives a broader history of Milwaukee. It gives a history of the indigenous folks who settled here, up to who is here now. When I was a program manager, before I became executive director, I used to do training about these things.
Q: What is Public Allies doing well?
A: We do a good job cultivating leadership that respects the community, that engages with the community and is from the community. That continues to drive us. We are an inclusive organization. About 80 percent of our allies have strong roots in Milwaukee. We really develop young leaders’ capacity to lead in just ways, and they’re taking that knowledge, their experiences, their commitments and those values to their organizations to help build a larger movement for justice and equity.