By Sam Woods Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Apr 29, 2023 at 5:56 PM

After a turbulent summer in which the former CEO laid off over 30 employees without notice and was forced out, Public Allies has restructured its Board of Directors and named Jenise Terrell as CEO.

In her new role, Terrell wants to get Public Allies back to its roots of non-hierarchical leadership.

Public Allies is a national nonprofit headquartered in Milwaukee that places people, usually 30 years old or younger, in apprenticeship programs with nonprofits to develop community-building skills. The goal of the 10-month program is to create leaders who share common values such as an appreciation for diversity and inclusion and continuous learning.

Alumni of the program locally include Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, artist and educator LaShawndra Vernon, activist Elle Halo and entrepreneur Tonda Thompson.

A turbulent summer

Terrell was one of the employees let go in July. Less than three weeks later,  CEO Jaime Uzeta resigned after more than 1,000 alumni across the country mobilized under the moniker Save Public Allies to demand his ouster.

Uzeta’s tenure was described by employees as overly hierarchical.

For Terrell, the biggest challenge facing her as CEO is to rebuild a culture of leadership that redistributes much of the power Uzeta had to unilaterally make decisions.

In August, Terrell was named the interim CEO of Public Allies and has guided the effort to rehire previously laid-off staff and restructure the Board of Directors. She was named CEO in February.

Terrell is signaling that although she is CEO, power at Public Allies will not lie solely in her position but will be available to anyone involved in the organization.

“Generations of Allies have learned that leadership is an action, not a position,” she said.

"Proud daughter of 53206"

Terrell has worked at Public Allies in different roles for over 20 years. From the beginning, she was drawn to Public Allies because of the organization’s commitment to seeing the potential in people rather than the written lines on their resume.

It’s a mindset that comes from her own personal experience.

A “proud daughter of 53206,” Terrell was one of the “very few” Black people in the Business Administration program at Marquette University when she attended in the 1990s.

She said her time in the program gave her tremendous opportunities to demonstrate her potential in business case competitions and to meet people from all over the country.

She also knew plenty of others who were just as qualified but did not get the same opportunities.

“Throughout my life, I recognize that I am here as a result of people seeing into me, seeing into my promise and potential,” Terrell said. “But from a young age I felt fortunate because I knew not everyone was seen through that lens.”

Terrell wants her legacy to be defined by the opportunities she creates for others.

“I am the byproduct of people who have seen my potential and created room,” she said. “My legacy is to continue widening the door of opportunity.”

Rebuilding trust

Terrell has devoted time to building back trust with Public Allies’ staff and partner organizations.

Even after Uzeta resigned, things at Public Allies did not automatically return to normal. Former staff across the country were still out of work, and some partner organizations who hosted “Allies” – the term the organization uses to describe the people placed in apprenticeships – wanted to know what was next for the organization.

In short, there was harm that needed to be repaired. To do this, Terrell said that Public Allies relied on a reparations framework developed by Aria Florant, a Public Allies alum and board member.

The framework breaks reparations into four steps: reckoning, acknowledgment, accountability and redress.

The reparations process began with the Board of Directors acknowledging that Uzeta’s actions were flawed and then reaching out to the former employees to acknowledge these flaws and hold themselves accountable for the harm caused to those affected.

On a national level, this began by replacing more than half the Board of Directors. Two of the incoming board members are alumni who were part of the effort to demand Uzeta’s resignation.

A return to its roots

In addition, Public Allies has taken steps to redistribute the power future CEOs have to influence the board unilaterally.

“Whereas typically only the CEO engages with the board, (we wanted) multiple points of connection” between the organization and the board, Terrell said.

Locally, the redress involved reassuring partner organizations that Public Allies was returning to its roots as an organization that valued collaborative decision-making.

Adriana “Nanis” Rodriguez, who was among those laid off, was rehired as the Public Allies Wisconsin executive director in August.

She said the Milwaukee site lost partnerships and funding because of partners seeing Uzeta’s actions as “not in alignment with their values.”

“We had to really work on reassuring them that we are on a different trajectory, that we have new leadership that is supportive of our site, and that we’re committed to our values of radical honesty and transparency,” Rodriguez said.

Confronting the past

Rodriguez said that current leaders do not want to hide from the past – but seek to learn from it.

“I’m always open to coffee chats. We believe in this work and are open to questions,” Rodriguez said.

Shavonda Sisson, a Public Allies alum who was instrumental in the effort to oust the former CEO, has been added to the Board of Directors.

During the campaign to force the former CEO’s resignation, Sisson remembers how decision-making was democratized and how alumni trusted each other to make decisions without an established hierarchical power structure.

She said this was possible because of the leadership training that alumni had received through their time with the program.

“I feel like I got my PhD in Public Allies,” Sisson said.

While building back its reputation nationally and locally, Terrell hopes that Public Allies’ comeback becomes a case study for a more inclusive model of leadership for business, nonprofits and even government.

“In terms of the future for us, I want to be able to say two years from now” that “Public Allies is understood to be an institution that helps cultivate leaders,” she said. “And nationally, more than ever, that’s needed.”