Nickol Mora inspires a new generation of leaders

It takes generous, collaborative leadership to lead a growing, diverse city like Cincinnati. As Nickol Mora steps into her new role with the local agency Public Allies, her eyes are focused on preparing a diverse group of young leaders to take their place at the table.
Public Allies is part of the AmeriCorps network, which is sometimes referred to as “the domestic Peace Corps” because it connects thousands of citizen members each year to full-time, paid apprenticeships with government, nonprofit and community or faith-based organizations. Some members work directly (and only) with their assigned organization, but others join up with local and national agencies like Public Allies that serve as middlemen between AmeriCorps and partnering organizations.
The mission of Public Allies is to “to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.” It’s a nationwide program with sites in 22 cities besides Cincinnati.

Public Allies recruits a diverse class locally each year to work in capacity-building roles for dozens of local organizations addressing a variety of community needs. In addition to their placements, the Allies take time each week for personal and professional development as well as team-building activities and group volunteer projects.

Mora first came to Cincinnati for a year of service as a way to get to know a new city. Now, at age 29, she is leading the effort to identify and train the city’s future leaders.

Committed to community

Mora is a native of Costa Rica and was only 6 when her family moved to Lancaster, Pa. The contrast between Central America and Amish country was stark, but, from a very young age, she was engaged in local justice issues. Her initial motivation, she remembers, was the “sense of responsibility” she felt as a new U.S. resident.
“I had this great opportunity, due to no merit of my own, that my extended family did not,” Mora says. “I grew up in a fairly poor economy, and I felt that I had to do something worthwhile with the instant privilege that I received (in the U.S.). That sentiment is what first drove me to do community-based volunteering in middle and high school.” 
Her high school was in the inner city in Pittsburgh and was a welcome change after the small town of Lancaster. She was eager to engage with the more diverse group of peers.
“I started writing in high school and was editor of the yearbook, and I really enjoyed writing about local community issues,” Mora says.

When it came time for college, she enrolled at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University to study journalism and communications. She had a natural flair for writing, and her intent was to use the medium to discuss social issues.
She graduated from Point Park in 2009 and began to pursue a career in journalism but felt disconnected from the world she was reporting about. She wanted to get to know her subjects on a deeper level. She says she “needed to be more hands-on.”

Mora’s parents had moved to Cincinnati while she was in college, and they suggested she move nearer to them. She was familiar with the work Public Allies did in the community in Pittsburgh, so when she discovered the same program in Cincinnati, it sealed the deal. She left Pittsburgh and a potential career in journalism to pursue a year of service with Public Allies here.

Joining a team of allies
Moving to Cincinnati to join Public Allies is different than moving for family, friends or an ordinary job. Joining the organization means signing on to something pretty significant and joining a community of people who have made that same leap.
“It was probably the best way I could have been introduced to a city because it was this instant network of people who were like-minded,” Mora says.
Every Public Allies class is different, but they all share one thing: intentional diversity. According to the PA website, in an average class “more than 67% are people of color, 60% are women, 50% are college graduates, 15% are LGBT and 100% care about making a positive difference.”
“I don’t think there’s any other room in Cincinnati that looks like a Public Allies room,” Mora says.

This is exactly what she was looking for. She wanted to get her hands dirty in social justice issues alongside people who she could learn from, people who understand what she doesn’t about the issues they are addressing.
Her experience that first year with Public Allies helped her feel at home in Cincinnati.

“I was never really attached to places before, but it feels like I can make my way here and I care about what happens here,” Mora says. “I don’t know if I would have that had I moved here for any other reason.”
Tynisha Worthy was a Program Manager for Public Allies Cincinnati during the 2009-10 year Mora first arrived. She considered it a pleasure to coach Mora through her year at Public Allies and has stayed in touch with her through the strong PA alumni network.
Worthy remembers Mora as a quiet, competent leader.

“She exemplifies our core values in her personal and professional leadership practice,” Worthy says. “Nickol is quietly observant. When she speaks, people listen because she is reserved and doesn't take up a lot of space.”
Some Allies commit to a second year of service, but Mora never had the chance. She was recruited by her partner organization, United Way of Greater Cincinnati, and for the next two years worked to build United Way’s youth engagement and nonprofit board development programs.

She returned to Public Allies Cincinnati in August of 2012 as a Program Manager.

Committed to the vision and mission
Mora is an expert in telling the story of Public Allies, but she hasn’t just learned to recite the mission — she believes it.
In her six years in Cincinnati, Mora has seen a small, exclusive group of leaders and “experts” making unilateral decisions on behalf of a diverse and growing city.

“You see the same people at every table,” she says. “You see decisions being made without those who are affected by those in the room.”
The progress of our city, she says, depends on changing the face of its leadership. Public Allies is working toward this goal by empowering homegrown leaders to take control of their own communities.
Some of the Allies seem to be unlikely leaders, those Mora characterizes as “someone that maybe doesn’t have all the skills yet, isn’t quite as polished, but has all the passion in the world.” Public Allies gives them the opportunity to develop their professional and personal skills while working for the community addressing issues that affect them directly.

“These are people who are from these communities and they know what happens there,” Mora says. “They can connect in a way that other people can’t.”

The Future of Public Allies and of Cincinnati
A few months ago, Mora was promoted to Site Director of Public Allies Cincinnati, the senior position with the agency’s local branch. Her predecessor, Shawn Jeffers, hand-picked her for the position. He was on staff during her 2009-10 service year and has worked alongside her since 2012.
When Jeffers announced his plan to leave Public Allies, he says Mora was an easy choice, saying she was “best suited to assume the role due to her performance and skill set.” In the six years he’s observed her work, Jeffers has seen her natural leadership skills mature.
“Nickol's biggest strength is that she is always organized and prepared,” Jeffers says. “When I served as Site Director of Public Allies Cincinnati, I knew I could always rely on Nickol to be on top of all of her responsibilities without even having to ask. When she worked at the United Way, she was the youngest person in her department but was tasked with making sure the department stayed on budget and didn't go overboard in their initiatives. She has excellent judgment that serves her well.”
Public Allies is fortunate to have a new, young leader with both the passion for the mission and the skill set to lead the organization. Jeffers describes Mora’s leadership style as “steady and reliable, quiet but forceful” and believes the agency has a bright future under her guidance.
But what exactly does the future of Cincinnati and Public Allies look like? Mora is reticent to name any specific agenda for Cincinnati apart from the actual stated mission of Public Allies. When pressed, she doesn’t name a specific social issue she wants to address, although Public Allies Cincinnati has partnered with local organizations as diverse as the Freestore Foodbank, Girl Scouts of Western Ohio and Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati.
“It’s not so much about the issues themselves,” she says, but more about “who we look to for solutions.”

Through her experiences with Public Allies, Mora has seen how finding a solution is as simple as connecting the dots between needs and resources. But until the conversation opens itself to a broader base of people — and, therefore, resources — needs remain unmet. She is committed to building this “culture of collaboration,” of inviting diverse voices to the table and letting them contribute to the conversation.
Public Allies is raising a new generation of leaders who know where they’ve come from and what their community needs and are committed to finding equitable solutions. These are future leaders of Cincinnati, its new experts.

As Public Allies’ new first-in-command, Nickol Mora is helping young Cincinnatians write their own future.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.