Building a relationship in an unlikely place


In a recent blog post, Joe Szakos, co-author of We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do — And Why, argues that movements are built on relationships. He says the following: "...great organizing is done one by one by one by one, being intentionally diverse, helping people learn leadership skills, and having everyone learning from each other about how everything is interconnected."

The story of the relationship between Dennis Donovan, a Research Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC), and Megan Kadrmas, an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Minnesota, is a story of how fruitful public relationships can be initiated anywhere.

As Dennis tells it, he was playing with his band, the Midas Touch, at Mancini's, when he noticed an unusual group of restaurant patrons. As Megan says, "we caught their attention because... well... I guess we were dressed up and the only people under the age of 35 there besides the bartender."

A long-time community organizer with a focus on youth organizing, Dennis is always interested in meeting people, especially students. During one of the band's breaks, he went over to the group and engaged them in conversation. He learned that the group was comprised of college students at the University of Minnesota. He further learned that one of the students, Megan, was studying journalism.

Dennis knows that developing civic agency and building effective action groups means recognizing diverse talents. At the time, the Warrior to Citizen campaign was just beginning to train volunteers to conduct oral histories of soldiers returning from Iraq. Dennis asked Megan, as a journalism student, if she'd like to participate. Megan says, "I thought collecting oral histories from soldiers would be an interesting way to expand my interviewing experience and maybe learn some new techniques."

Megan's work with the oral history project evolved into an independent study the next semester, in which she studied public work skills and the process of relationship building. Sometime towards the end of the semester, Megan says, "[Dennis] asked me if I would be interested in doing an embedment project with the National Guard. I jumped at the idea because it was a great opportunity to challenge myself, it would look great on a resume, and I got credit for it. But most profound was the opportunity to make connections with people at the base. I learned that military men are still normal people with their own histories, motives, and goals."

Dennis and Megan will continue their work together this fall. Megan will look to embed herself with the Minnesota National Guard in Kosovo, and is aiming to help Dennis make connections within the Journalism school to further establish the embedment project as a worthwhile class for journalism students.

The lesson of Mancini's? Relationships can be initiated in even the most unlikely of places. From their chance encounter, Megan Kadrmas and Dennis Donovan established a connection through which both are gaining and learning from one another, and through which new public wealth is created.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs