ASU Lodestar Center


Gabe Mendoza

Public Ally Gabriel Mendoza’s inspiring story of commitment and determination in community development

April 3, 2024 — In the heart of Tucson, Arizona, a dynamic young leader is making waves in a vibrant initiative that is reshaping the lives of the local youth. The story of Gabriel Mendoza is one of a dedicated and committed individual who has a passion for creating positive change in the lives of young people. His dedication and commitment have laid a foundation for future leaders to emerge and thrive through the Cradle to Career Partnership at United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, where he was placed as a member of Public Allies Arizona, an AmeriCorps program of the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.

Born in Tucson and raised going back and forth between Nogales, Mexico and Tucson, Gabriel understands all too well the challenges faced by these diverse communities. Prior to joining Public Allies Arizona in 2023, Gabriel used to attend workshops and conferences on leadership development and social justice issues, particularly those that focused on development of opportunity youth. One thing that struck him at these meetings was the limited engagement with the youth in attendance.

“I would be in those workshops writing down notes on how I could make the presentation better and how I would engage the youth more, because I would look around the room and see no one paying attention, so I wanted to step up into that educator position,” said Gabriel.

After graduating from Pima Community College in Tucson, Gabriel had a chance encounter with a recruitment table for Public Allies Arizona. The program’s main focus is to transform leadership practices by recruiting and training talented, emerging leaders who have a strong commitment to social impact and are driven by  a passion for creating meaningful change. He did not hesitate to sign up because this was a golden opportunity to channel his energy into meaningful projects and put all he had learned into practice. He was placed with the United Way to work on their Cradle to Career Partnership.

The Cradle to Career Partnership is aimed at serving the growing number of opportunity youth in Pima County. Opportunity youth are people ages 16-24 who are not in school or working. The census data of 2020 reveals a poverty rate of 19.6% in Tucson , so with a considerable proportion of the community living below the poverty threshold, grappling with the day to day obstacles that come with financial hardships, it shows that  poverty is a root cause of why there are many opportunity youth.

The program’s focus on providing educational and employment opportunities is crucial for community development. It’s about encouraging the youth to dream big and achieve success irrespective of their background, said Melissa Hernandez, Associate Vice President for the Cradle to Career Partnership at the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona.

The program has three pillars – Financial Wellness, Education, and Thriving Futures – and Gabriel’s focus in this program is on the Thriving Futures pillar. His role involves bringing the young people together, engaging them in conversations about their aspirations and concerns, empowering them to amplify their voice. This dialogue helps the change networks to identify what initiatives and programs can be implemented to remove the barriers so that the youth can be more successful.

Melissa Hernandez, who is also Gabriel’s supervisor, said that his work is more than just facilitating dialogue, but also it’s about building trust and understanding within the community. She adds that the reason why Gabriel was able to have such an impact on the community is because “he brings an authentic experience, something that you can’t read in a textbook.”

Gabriel’s passion for community service is deeply rooted in his own experiences as an “opportunity youth,” seeking youth support services. This  has equipped him with a deep sense of empathy and a genuine desire to make a positive impact in the lives of young people. He understands the hardships the youths are facing so he can bring people together and ask the right questions, something which is necessary to make really sustainable long-term change. Gabriel’s unique approach has revitalized the Cradle to Career Partnership, bringing tangible results in a remarkably short space of time. His openness to learning and seeking support from supervisors and colleagues plays a big part in the success of the initiative.

Gabriel has had tremendous support from Paul Braden, a Cradle to Career Partnership program manager who is an alum of the Public Allies site in Delaware. Melissa highlighted that Gabriel and Paul’s collaboration brings a unique richness to their work within the organization. Their shared passion for community development and shared experiences through the Public Allies program is like a common language for them, which helps them to work towards common goals with a unified vision. The impact of their collaboration on the community has been profound, with external partners recognizing and commending the remarkable work they have done in a short period.  “Our partners are feeling the positivity that comes out of the work between these two and that authenticity that you just can’t read about,” said Melissa.

One of the most notable achievements that was highlighted by Melissa was of revitalizing the United Youth Leadership Council within just four weeks of Gabriel joining the program. Before Gabriel joined Cradle to Career, the council was facing some challenges and was lacking representation from diverse backgrounds, limiting its impact and reach. There was an overwhelming response from the community with over 40 applications, after the program initially expected to attract only 10 applicants. Through his personal touch, he was able to inspire youth to participate in the program, facilitating a space where young people can access professional development opportunities and actively participate in shaping their future.

As Gabriel and Paul continue to work together, combining their talents, expertise and passion, their shared partnership serves as a shining example of the power of how people with a shared vision can work together and lead transformative outcomes and empower individuals to reach their full potential.

Reflecting on his path and lessons learned, Gabriel says that his journey with the Cradle to Career Partnership has been a transformative experience positively shaping his career aspirations. He advises other young people who desire to make a difference to seize every opportunity for growth and engagement, “taking the opportunity, going out there, stepping out of your comfort zone is the first step, and most important step” Gabriel said.

Story by Nyasha Mhungu, ASU Lodestar Center

Image: Gabriel Mendoza at the start of the 2023-2024 Public Allies Arizona program year.

Learn more about how Public Allies Arizona is empowering the next generation of nonprofit leaders

Public Allies Arizona is changing the face and practice of leadership throughout Phoenix and Tucson communities by demonstrating our conviction that everyone can lead, and that lasting change results when citizens of all backgrounds step up, take responsibility and work together.

It is a 10-month AmeriCorps program that places emerging leaders in full-time, paid nonprofit internships with partner organizations in the community. Our mission is to create a just and equitable society and the diverse leadership to sustain it.