Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story featured a different image. At the request of one of the people pictured, we are using a new photograph because the person did not want to be associated with Public Allies. In addition, Reporter Sam Woods is an alumnus of Public Allies.
Public Allies, a national nonprofit headquartered in Milwaukee with satellite sites across the country, announced last week that it would be laying off employees in what CEO Jaime Ernesto Uzeta called a “restructuring.”
The roughly 30 employees let go received no notice of their layoffs until the morning of July 7, effective immediately. A July 11 statement by the Public Allies national office confirmed that the employees were notified the morning of their layoffs.
In a statement, Public Allies said that employees would receive severance packages “above industry standard.” But there were no details of what this entailed.
The nonprofit organization places people, usually 30 years old or younger, in apprenticeship programs with nonprofits that develop community-building skills. Alumni of the program locally include Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley; artist and educator LaShawndra Vernon; activist Elle Halo; and entrepreneur Tonda Thompson.
Hundreds of alumni of the Public Allies program nationally, many of whom live in Milwaukee or did their apprenticeship in Milwaukee, challenge Uzeta’s claim that the firings were part of needed restructuring. Instead, they claim that those laid off were targeted for “openly voicing concerns about Uzeta’s leadership and negligent oversight of operations and programs.”
In a statement Monday, Uzeta said that “every metric indicated that the current structure of Public Allies was no longer tenable,” but he did not cite any particular metric used to determine the need for restructuring and has not responded to requests for clarification.
The alumni have since called for Uzeta and the Public Allies national board of directors to resign.
The statement says, “Join Over 400 PA Alumni and Demand Accountability for the Public Allies Layoffs and Closures.”
Uzeta did not respond to requests by NNS for comment.
Jeanne Duffy, executive director at Serve Wisconsin, declined to comment on whether she was aware of Uzeta’s plans before the layoffs or if she had spoken to him since then, citing an ongoing relationship with the organization. Serve Wisconsin distributes AmeriCorps funding from the federal government to programs throughout Wisconsin, including Public Allies.
Under Uzeta’s leadership, Public Allies received a $10 million gift last fall from Mackenzie Scott to support the organization’s Racial Equity Fundraising Campaign. The campaign aims to raise $75 million over three years.
In describing the campaign, Public Allies said that itis raising the money because it “has the experience and expertise to catalyze a dramatic shift and ultimately create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable future for all. But in order for us to be the change agents the country needs, we need to strengthen our core program and accelerate our work.”
Ninety-two percent of employees fired nationally are Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, while 58% were Black women, according to alumni. Uzeta said in the July 11 statement that firings affected mostly BIPOC employees because the organization’s staff is majority BIPOC.
However, alumni say that the share of BIPOC workers at Public Allies dropped from 73% to 57% of staff due to the firings.
Though nine sites nationwide are to close as part of the restructuring, Milwaukee is set to stay open. However, its executive director Nanis Rodriguez was one of those laid off on July 7.
Uzeta said that Public Allies will continue the apprenticeship program, though sites may switch to virtual-only while now-vacant staff positions are filled.
For more information
Read more about the demands of Public Allies alums at savepublicallies.org.