Wednesday, February 22, 2017


George Dennison, (originally printed in the Spring 2010 Montanan)
In January, we lost a dedicated, visionary leader when George Dennison passed away. Since then, we've put the call out to friends and colleagues of George to send us pieces about working with him and what it meant. This piece comes from John Allen, who worked as Montana state director for the Corporation for National and Community Service office. John's retired now, but he served on the Governor's Commission on Community Service with George. John helped establish MTCC's VISTA program and wrote this piece on the occasion of George's retirement. It ran originally in the Spring 2010 issue of the Montanan, UM's alumni magazine.

"I know President Dennison as a builder who has made Montana a better place. One can easily see all the growth at UM—the new stadium, the powerhouse football team, increased student enrollment, the rise of the University’s academic reputation, and other milestones. From my personal experience and knowledge, Dennison’s legacy also is about building foundations that we can build on to create more and better volunteer programs, a more civically engaged population, and, consequently, a stronger democracy.

During my thirty-five years working in community service, civic engagement, and volunteerism, and ten years as the Montana director for the Corporation for National and Community Service (known as the domestic Peace Corps), I worked with Dennison to encourage civic engagement and volunteerism. He is a builder—a visionary with a can-do attitude. I can’t count the number of times in meetings where he would say, “Let’s get it done.” He is able to connect seemingly unrelated issues while fostering relationships between far afield entities, like college volunteers working with senior volunteers to collect for food banks or young volunteers teaching senior volunteers about computers. Dennison realizes a successful democracy depends on an educated and civically engaged population. 

John Allen
Often he would lead dialogues among leaders in community service about the importance of volunteerism. Building civic engagement to him was not only an academic interest; it was about something bigger and getting it done. Dennison provided the vision and leadership at the University, in Montana, and nationally to increase civic engagement. He served on the national Campus Compact board and was instrumental in building, in Montana, one of the most successful branches in the nation. Campus Compact promotes civic engagement at the university level. Year after year, UM ranks among the top universities nationally for civically engaged students, outranking many prestigious schools. For fifteen years Dennison was the chair, visionary, and leaderof the Montana Commission on Community Service, which promoted civic engagement. With his leadership, the commission developed and implemented more programs and created an environment that encouraged collaborations not often seen in larger states. Civic engagement experts considered the Montana Campus Compact and Montana Commission on Community Service as models for the nation, a direct result of Dennison’s longtime commitment and leadership. He gave tireless effort and always made himself available." 

John Allen

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Goodbye to Two-Term MTCC VISTA - Kate Johnson

Last month, we said goodbye to a great VISTA and wonderful colleague in Kate Johnson. Kate served as a VISTA with Bitterroot College UM in Hamilton for 2 full years, helping build capacity for the college’s marketing and outreach to the low-income and first generation college Bitterrooters. Kate’s dedication to college access and passion for community education will continue to benefit her immediate community as she transitions into a new student outreach role at The University of Montana. Below she reflects on her 2 years of service.

What aspect of serving with Bitterroot College will you remember most?

Seeing how hard some of the people involved with Bitterroot College work in order to keep that college going. The College is relatively new in the community, and is always overcoming an obstacle. It keeps going on because so many staff, faculty, and community members are determined to provide access to education to people in the Bitterroot Valley. Pro tip: Support your local educational institution(s) through educating yourself on higher education systems, by taking classes, by getting to know the people who dedicate themselves to making education available, affordable, and relevant to their neighbors.

Through your experience, in what ways did you expand the capacity of Bitterroot College outreach?

In my first term of service I expanded the college's outreach capacity by building tools and systems for our marketing, doing outreach presentations for community organizations, tabling at the Hamilton Farmers Market (always getting a bagel breakfast sandwich from Bitterroot Bagels and More or a burrito from Maria's Burritos or both), and creating marketing procedures and strategies for the college to use in the 1-3 year span. 

In my second term of service I did more tabling (and ate many more bagel breakfast sandwiches and burritos), more outreach presentations, and helped develop a strategic outreach plan with a team of Bitterroot College staff and AmeriCorps members. I also wrote grants for the college to expand its academic offerings to the community. 

How has two years of service in VISTA changed you as a person?

For the past two years I've done my service on a largely self-directed basis with the expectation of still working within a team, so I've learned a lot about how I operate as a person, teammate, and office pal and have made some adjustments to my office personality. On the whole, I hope I've started to balance candor with capability. 

What can we expect from Future Kate?

I just started a job at UM's Global Engagement Office and am grant writing on the side for a couple nonprofit organizations in the Bitterroot Valley. So expect to see me drinking lots of coffee on campus, loping through Missoula on some good runs (ultimate short term goal is to run all of the switchbacks of the "M" without going into cardiac arrest), moseying through the Missoula Farmers Market, and volunteering.

Any words of wisdom for potential first year VISTAs?

Take ownership of your service. You're allowed - and supposed to - speak up for yourself at your service site. You're expected to get things done for your community, so make sure that you have what you need in order to do that successfully. And you're obligated to stand up for what is fair for yourself, the people you serve, and the people whose voices need to be heard. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


George with Emma Lommasson in 2006.
We're opening this space to friends and former colleagues of George Dennison, so we can remember him and the good work he did. This piece comes from Steve Nelsen of Helena, MT. Steve is retired now, but he is the founding director of the Montana Conservation Corps and was the director of the Governor's Office of Community Service, working with George who was Commission Chair. Thanks for contributing, Steve.

It's pretty easy to be cynical about the leaders of our institutions when their brilliant narrative wanes in the face of obstacles to their pursuit of lofty public policy goals.    However, when George Dennison talked about civic engagement he was "the real deal".  As a History professor George understood that citizens working to help each other formed the basic fabric of our democratic society, and was relentless in his efforts to reinvigorate involvement of Montana's citizens. 

When Marc Racicot was elected Governor  he adopted national service as one of his signature programs. He created the Governor's Office of Community Service and  tagged George to Chair the Commission. At the time,  I was Director of the fledgling Montana Conservation Corps  and was pleased to have a University President chairing the Commission that we hoped would be a major funding source.  Frankly,  I had few  expectations that he would  be more than a nice "figurehead". It quickly became apparent that  George was serious about  leading Montana's national service programming.  He took time from his crazy busy schedule to support the Corps in its' infancy. He came to swear in  Members, graduations, and  provided numerous contacts with potential partners. He even flew to spend a day with a crew in the Yaak, where they threw him a pair of waders  and took him to a wetlands project.  Only later did I learn that he had directed his scheduler to give priority to AmeriCorps Programs. His presence gave us credibility, stature and legitimacy at a critical time in the infancy of the Conservation Corps . George laid more than a couple of bricks in the foundation of the Montana Conservation Corps

I also observed the support he gave to other AmeriCorps programs.   I watched as he brought together virtually every college and University in the state to participate in Campus Compact.  This may have been his crowning fete.  If you've had any dealings with Institutions of Higher Ed you know how difficult it is to bring them together on any issue,  yet, in a few short years George had the Presidents of all these institutions, from Carroll  to Dawson Community College dedicating staff to Campus Compact and preaching the Gospel of Civic Engagement as though it were their lifelong passion.  Maybe it was, but I doubt we would have seen this unified effort mobilized without the leadership and persuasiveness of George.    

It seemed that he never passed up a chance to spread the gospel  of civic engagement and to
Steve Nelsen
institutionalize its presence .  He highlighted civic engagement at  Griz pregame Presidential breakfasts, used it as the theme of Commencement  Addresses,  and even co-opted the Cat/Griz venue to present Awards to alumni for the community involvement.   He spoke with passion about the vital role of civic involvement in a democratic society, and how it was the foundation for citizen led government.    We miss you George.  We could use you in these dynamic times. 

Steve Nelsen 

Helena, Montana