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Meet an Alumnus: Brendan O’Connor

Posted by on Monday, April 8, 2019 in Alumni, .

 Brendan O’Connor, M.Ed. 2012

Senior Organizer and Grantwriter, Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation

Brendan O'Connor

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where you are from originally and what did you do before you came to Vanderbilt?

I grew up in Staunton, a small town in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I went to college at James Madison University, a mid-sized public university, where I ended up graduating with a degree in Philosophy and Religion. After working as an Assistant Manager in a small paint store for a year, I made my way to D.C. to work for a non-profit called the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, which tried to help low- to moderate-level income people start and develop businesses. I did some other work up there, including working for the U.S. Department of State for two years. I moved to Nashville for grad school in 2010.

Q: What made you decide to come to the CDA program?

It was largely my interest in community psychology, which is at the roots of the CDA program. There aren’t a lot of community psychology graduate programs; I applied to a few of them and CDA seemed to be the best fit. I was particularly interested in a central community psych idea/variable known as “sense of community,” which I felt was what I needed to be learning about and working on. I also felt it was important to be part of deep work in the South, a region that a lot of people coming from a progressive perspective want to abandon.

Q: What were some things you were involved with during your time here?

For my practicum, I was involved with some community-based research that Kimberly Bess was doing at Cayce Homes, a public housing project in East Nashville. I also was a part of the Martha O’Bryan Center’s Promise Neighborhood initiative, an effort funded by the Department of Education to do anti-poverty work based on the Harlem Children’s Zone model. Several of us were involved in the early planning stages and helped plan and carry out a 500 or so person survey in partnership with some folks in the community.

I was also interested in dialogue-based work, and was part of a campus group called Project Dialogue and another called Diversity in Dialogue at the Scarritt Bennett Center. I became involved with a community organizing coalition called “Nashville Organized for Action and Hope” (NOAH) as well.

Q: What did you do for your final assessment?

I went the thesis route and researched a group in Massachusetts called Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW). They had an interesting program called NeighborCircles that I decided to study, because it seemed like a constructive, solution-oriented program, focused on building sense of community (that initial construct of interest for me). They would find a facilitator in a local neighborhood who would invite 8-10 neighbors into their home for a series of potlucks, in order to both build relationships and do collective action around issues in their neighborhood. I went there to investigate the building of sense of community, through interviews and surveys, in part using a model from Doug Perkins that I built on. I got a mini-grant from the Meharry-Vanderbilt Community-Engaged Research Program to do a program evaluation, and was able to turn my thesis into a published article in the end.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing since graduation?

After some long and deep soul-searching, I turned down a fellowship offer and began working at a couple local restaurants and interning at an urban farm (the Nashville Food Project)—all in preparation for an eventual move to Selma, where a woman named Ainka Jackson and other local people had recently founded the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation, and were open to supporting a community restaurant in some way or another. I worked a low-wage restaurant job at first and did some grantwriting for the Selma Center, all the while working on the community restaurant project, which we imagined as a social enterprise for the Center. After some local input, we decided the restaurant should be focused on not only building sense of community/solidarity, but also wealth, so we decided to focus on creating it as a worker and community-owned cooperative (we recently got some funding for this and are in the start-up phases).

Q: How has your CDA experience helped prepare you for that work?

One standout thing was being more exposed to the issue of race. In the class Theories of Inequality, we read part of a book by Patricia Hill Collins called Black Feminist Thought. It was one of the first times I really had to reckon with race. At the same time, I was at the Scarritt Bennett Center doing a facilitation training around issues of race as part of my practicum; there were some powerful experiences during that training that really started to make me aware of racial inequality and class divides in a personal way.

In addition, as part of a large grant for the Selma Center, we have to do a formal, research-based evaluation. The model of “Participatory Action Research,” or PAR, is one that I became familiar with through CDA. Through that and Beth Shinn’s program evaluation class, I am able to feel pretty confident helping to guide and interact with the evaluator.

Q: Do you have any advice for CDA students who are interested in doing this type of work? Or general wisdom you’d like to pass on?

One quote that I’d like to pass on is from an aboriginal woman from Australia named Lilla Watson. She was doing some work in Australia around a river project, and there were some white Australians who came to be involved. She said something to the effect of, “If you’ve come to help us, we don’t need your help, but if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up in ours, then let’s work together.” So I think I would encourage any CDA students to think about how nobody’s free in a society that’s as unequal as ours and to look at both their own community and other communities when they think about where the work needs to be done—and to shift from a framework of helping others to being in collective work and struggle with others.

One last comment: If you can ever get a chance to talk to Professor Paul Dokecki, do that. He’s a wise man if I’ve ever met one.


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