Pop Star: Dara Ware Allen
"I didn't find out what I was good at until I had my first real job here," says Dara Ware Allen, sitting at her neatly cluttered desk – full of small, squared piles – at the nonprofit YouthWorks
downtown. "I had a supervisor who saw something I didn't see in myself."
That's what Allen has been doing for others since 1996, when she started here as coordinator of youth recruitment for the East region, graduating to program manager in the ensuing four years. She has been executive director of the agency, which helps young people develop job skills and find worthy careers, since 2004.
"It's about exposure," Allen says. "You can't aspire to a career if you don't know it exists. Our services are geared to provide them that experience."
Today, Allen is a Pittsburgh Public Schools board member as well, fulfilling Heather Arnet's term since Arnet's resignation 18 months ago. Allen's exposure to the work of the board has inspired her to run again. But it took some false starts and extra pushes for her to reach this spot.
Dara Ware Allen, 38, grew up in Wilkinsburg, attended a private middle school and got into Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School for dance at the same time her mother got a job teaching at the district's Dilworth elementary.
The movie "Fame" had influenced her direction, Allen says: "I wasn't that good. But it was exciting to be in that school."
She transferred to Perry High School for its science and math emphasis, hoping to be a pediatrician. Her English and science teachers were encouraging, but, as a board member today, she realizes she could have developed better critical thinking skills before graduation – and that she could have benefited from today's greater emphasis on service learning. "If I was at the top of my class, probably many more felt underprepared," she allows.
She certainly felt prepared for college at Spelman. But she soon realized that pre-med science perhaps wasn't her forte either.
Happily, her YouthWorks supervisor saw the leader in her. Today her colleagues in the nonprofit world describe her as a model.
"She is universally viewed as being a smart, energetic, innovative leader who strengthens the whole nonprofit sector in our community," says Scott Leff, associate director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University
"She is one of the most outstanding advocates for children and youth in western Pennsylvania," says her school-board colleague Bill Isler, who heads Family Communications Inc., which continues the work of Fred Rogers. "She lights up when she hears about kids succeeding. As chair of the education committee, she has brought a level of professionalism to the board – she really works to inform us."
Deciding to run for her own full term came from "gaining a whole new appreciation for the process," Allen says, "and what it really takes to engage with the public and learn about their interests, [making sure] that your ideas reflect theirs and that you'll listen and make good decisions."
She also has a very personal stake in the district's decisions, since the older of her two sons, Evan (5) and Micah (3), is in a pre-school program in the district – a program Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget no longer funds.
Thinking about her own kids' future, she dreams "that they will feel empowered to dream, too, and be whatever they set their minds to. It sounds like such a simple thing, But in working with our youth and visiting some of our schools, not all of our youth feel that way. It's based on some of the experiences they've had. They haven't been encouraged. They haven't had the experience that makes them feel they are prepared for these goals."
One of the keys is service learning, she believes, which instills the idea of helping others, exposes kids to careers and gives them much-needed confidence to succeed beyond others' expectations. She recalls starting early in her church and its youth group, and knows her own service will continue for many years to come.
That will certainly benefit YouthWorks and Pittsburgh, says Candi Castleberry-Singleton, chief inclusion and diversity officer at UPMC, where Allen serves on the Center for Inclusion's Partnership Council.
"YouthWorks has benefited from who she is as much as it has benefited from what she does," says Castleberry-Singleton. "When I say 'Dara,' I feel collaboration. And that's not true for everyone, even when collaboration is required for their work and their success. I think we've only seen the beginning of what Dara Ware Allen will offer to this community."
Marty Levine is the For Good editor of Pop City. Photographs copyright Brian Cohen