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Building Community through Art: Melissa Dunmore

Melissa Dunmore (she/her) (Public Allies Arizona ‘12) has always been a writer. As a Brooklyn-born Boricua living in the Valley of the Sun, she has developed her keen artistic style to illustrate the lived experiences of marginalized communities and to shed light on social issues that are often overlooked. Her term of service with Public Allies Arizona gave her the opportunity to further hone her practice of community engagement and the power of art in social change. 


“After I graduated from Arizona State University where I did my undergrad, I applied for the Public Allies program because I thought it sounded like a really good way to get to know my local community,” Melissa says. “I was never able to study abroad or travel because I couldn’t afford to do so and graduate debt free just wasn’t possible. I had to make that difficult choice to spend my whole undergrad here in the States instead of having this wonderful international education I had envisioned for myself. Instead of feeling sorry for myself I thought I could apply that same global mindset right here in Phoenix.”


There was so much of the city and state that Melissa hadn’t connected with yet, and she realized she could work domestically on behalf of all of the issues that she would have wanted to learn more about abroad and volunteer for like poverty, family strengthening, and women empowerment as a Public Ally.


“Joining Public Allies really opened my lens to Maricopa County and the diversity here in South Phoenix,” Melissa says. “It showed me our rich history as well as the marginalization that happens in some of these peripheral communities where you have majority BIPOC populations.”


Following her year of service, Melissa was hired to her placement site where she was able to participate in poverty reduction work, teach financial literacy classes, and get certified as a tax preparer for Maricopa and Yavapai counties. This set her on her career path, first in the nonprofit sector for a decade when she worked with families with young children, and now as a bilingual communications professional. In parallel,, she also focuses her energy as an artist, poet, and spoken word performer. 


“I’ve recently experienced a renaissance with my work after a three year hiatus,” Melissa says. “I went to grad school, got married, bought a house, and the world inverted itself. After having my daughter, I experienced a rebirth of creativity. So many amazing opportunities have come my way.”


Melissa Dunmore holding 3 of her own poetry pieces.A lot of her work is influenced by her experiences as an Afro-Latina. She allows her identity to shine and speak through her art in ways that strengthen connections across communities. 


“I look at inherent knowledge, value, and trust that I bring to the work that I do. Rather than seeing neighborhoods and labeling them as ‘troubled’ or ‘lacking’, these communities are very rich and vibrant. They have been made to seem as though they did this to themselves. Yet, there is a vested interest in keeping these communities small with underinvestment,” Melissa says.


Alongside her Public Allies cohort, Melissa established her commitment to social justice and has spent over 10 years supporting global-majority folks in the Phoenix area. She remains grateful for the camaraderie and genuine friendships she still holds and cherishes to this day. For her, it’s all about relationship building and authenticity. 


“Once you come from that mindset and legacy of service, you just want to continue it,” Melissa says. “You can still pop in on someone, you can see someone at Sprouts and strike up a conversation, or even message someone on social media. It’s all love. We’re all excited to see each other win and maximize our potential. A lot of us have families now too, which is really cool. Now there’s a bunch of little Allies running around and popping up all of the time.”


The local impact of Public Allies Arizona members and alumni can still be felt all across the city of Phoenix. She recalls the first couple of years after graduation when she met her now husband, and how every time there was something cool happening in the city or downtown, an Ally or fellow #PAAlum was behind it. 


“My husband was like, ‘Dang, Public Allies runs the world!’ and it’s true,” Melissa says. “We were behind the scenes doing a lot of the amazing things in the city, and it was neat to see because you could almost count on it. Like, this seems like a cool event, who from Public Allies is involved in this somehow? And it would be an alum in some capacity. I feel like that happens in other cities too. The alumni network is so rich with wisdom, and we have generations of folks doing amazing things. They have the heart of service in them, and it translates into their families, their communities, and the good just keeps coming.”


In April 2022, ten years after her term of service, Melissa’s passions for promoting equity and social justice through art led her to the opportunity of a lifetime– she had the honor of opening for bestselling contemporary poet Rupi Kaur on her world tour with her spoken word piece entitled Forgetting Femininity. 


“I didn’t know about that [opportunity] until I got a LinkedIn message from someone I worked with at the Girl Scouts several years ago,” Melissa says. “You never know the impact that you have on people or how the relationship is going to come back. She had more faith in me than I had at that moment when I was four months postpartum.”


She received the news the day she tested positive for COVID19, sending her into a whirlwind of excitement, gratitude, and exhaustion as a new mother. From there, Melissa met Rupi’s team, prepared for the chance of a lifetime, and shared her story on stage in front of thousands of people. And this was just the beginning of months of work as a paid performance poet and storyteller.


“That is life in a nutshell. You never know what’s going to come around the corner,” Melissa says. “It was a piece I wrote a long time ago, well before I was seriously thinking about having kids. The poem is just about how arbitrary it is to be a femme, a woman in society. All of these conflicting pressures are put on you and how I wish I could just forget about it. When you wake up in the morning you’re a blank slate and you have to relearn all of these things about how society operates, and it’s just whack. The balancing act of what we’re expected to do and be all of the time, and how freeing it would be to just be ourselves.”


Melissa and her family posing in TlaquePaqueNow, Melissa continues to share her light, wisdom, and passion through her creativity in multiple ways. In March 2023, she curated and directed an all-woman showcase of poets and storytellers at the Tempe Center for the Arts including a fellow Public Allies Arizona alumna and mother. In April 2023, she taught a bilingual poetry workshop for families at Phoenix Art Museum. Melissa loves being able to find ways to immerse herself in her art alongside the community. 


“I want to get people to tap into their own creative potential and to realize their abilities to be creative in their everyday lives,” Melissa says. “I’ve had wonderful experiences and more opportunities have opened up for me. I can’t even believe it. I’m excited to continue to reconnect with the community aspect of life that I’ve missed over the past few years and to introduce my daughter to the big beautiful world we live in.”