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Public Allies celebrate a decade of activism

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"You never know where a good idea will end up," Claudia Horwitz, executive director of N.C. stone circles, said gesturing to the white and pale green walls of the newly renovated Community Youth Cooperative in Durham.

A crowd of young adults lined the conference room and sat cross-legged on the floor to listen to speakers describe the cooperative. The occasion was an open house March 30 sponsored by one of the cooperative's longtime members, Public Allies North Carolina.

Now in its 10th year, Public Allies joined the cooperative shortly after it was founded in 1993. The cooperative provides a space where nonprofits started by people with lots of idealism but limited capital can share support facilities such as computers, copy machines, fax machines and office space. The connections are invaluable, and 11 years after its founding, the original Bull City Business Center office space in the old Herald-Sun building in downtown Durham still houses three nonprofits: Public Allies, Ncyt (pron. IN-sight, a network of young nonprofit professionals), and N.C. stone circles, which helps organizations integrate spiritual reflection into their work for social change.

"It's been through many different faces," Horwitz said, "but the spirit has remained the same."

The organizations, which still share fax machines and copy machines, came together to host Public Allies' open house.

Public Allies coordinates a year-long program that trains and supports 14 young leaders ages 18 to 30 who are interested in the nonprofit sector. Each member, or public ally, works four days a week in various nonprofits throughout the Triangle, such as Durham Nativity School, Alliance of AIDS Services Carolina and YMCA Raleigh. On Fridays, the allies convene to attend training classes that develop their skills as leaders in the nonprofit sector. In addition, the public allies organize collaborative service projects.

This year, the allies are leading two projects. One group is coordinating a Triangle-wide service week led by middle and high school students that focuses on an environmental issue. The other group is facilitating an inter-generational discussion seminar for members of the Campus Hills Parks and Recreations community to help foster understanding between the two groups.

Aisha Ramos, a pubic ally working at the Orange County Family Resource Center at the South Estes Public Housing Community in Chapel Hill, said people have chosen to join the program for a variety of reasons. Ramos, 24, said she joined after quitting an unfulfilling job in the marketing department of the National Basketball Association.

"I was working 16-hour days and at the end of the day I didn't feel like my work was counting," Ramos said. "I prayed on it and I decided I wanted to use my talents to help other people."

Upon completing the program, many of the participants remain in the Triangle to continue work in nonprofits. Michael Fiss, a 22-year-old Duke University graduate, said that's something that drew him to the program.

"To me," he said, "service meant you don't go and serve and then live your life on the side. I never was a fan of that."

Public Allies is currently accepting applications for both Public Allies and nonprofits interesting in hosting a public ally. Applications are due May 20. Information: 687-0005, www.publicallies.org.

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