Lighting a Beacon: The Phenomenal Journey of the 2023 MPU Fellowship in Montana

mpu   |   July 28, 2023

Among misty mountains and misty eyes, the 2023 MPU Fellowship was an action-packed, motivational, and rewarding weekend!

On June 22 to 25, 16 Fellows from vastly different backgrounds flew in for world-class leadership training hosted by the University of Montana. Led by our +MPU Leadership Team, we partnered with experts from Applied Leadership Partners, the Co-Lab for Civic Imagination, Listen First Project, and the Civic Health Project.

While the weekend was filled with inspirational talks and important training, it was also more than that — it offered an invaluable opportunity for bonding and networking. From a picturesque Montana mountain hike led by the legendary Delta Force’s Richard Rice (who so graciously geared everyone with a GORUCK bag and personalized patches as souvenirs) to personal exchanges over dinners. The fellowship was facilitating a profound connection among the participants and fostered a spirit of unity and shared purpose.

The goal of the MPU Fellowship is to empower these outstanding individuals and equip them with practical tools they could take back to their home states to establish Brickyard Chapters and do good within their local communities.

The Fellows had already gone through a rigorous application process to be accepted, and so when the +MPU Leadership Team started the itinerary that Friday, it was gratifying to see how months’ worth of planning had led us all to that one room in the University of Montana campus grounds, and by the generosity of UM President Seth Bodnar.

On the first day, there was a palpable tension that hung in the air — one with a touch of anxiety yet also an eagerness to gauge what this Fellowship was about. An +MPU tradition is giving space to everyone involved to explain who they are and why they’re here. There’s power in a story — in one’s individual experience that shaped their professional career or personal life to such a degree that they turn to service or find themselves naturally drawn to it.

“The mission is to heal this divide in our country, but the mission also sounds impossible and impractical. But, on that first day, 30-some strangers came together and opened their hearts, and I’ve never seen that in my life,” Greater Boston Brickyard Leader Ben Lyon said. “This is real. This is serious. This organization’s not about talk — we’re doing it.”

Our origin stories and the vulnerability that came from everyone who shared is part of what makes +MPU work. It’s being willing to have tough conversations and be open to what is said.

With do-good spirits aligned and numerous group exercises in tow, there was an undeniable sense of camaraderie that formed and strengthened by the day. If a person wasn’t feeling well, someone was immediately there to swoop in. If someone shared a heartfelt story, another would give them a hug or pat on the back. Strangers who had never met before were slowing down and supporting each other on Richard’s hike, where he promptly stated before and the year before that, that the annual ritual is to “Leave no one behind.”

Group of 30 Americans of different backgrounds hiking in Montana wearing MPU tshirts.
2023 Fellowship Hike

These are the leaders who are determined to bring home what they were taught in Montana to benefit their communities. The 2023 +MPU Fellowship included courses on community mapping, guiding conversations, tips on facilitating and de-escalating conversations, and measuring progress with real examples of how it’s possible.

We surprised the Fellows with special guests invited for a Fireside Chat: actor/activist Sean Penn and former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. What not a lot of people know is that the two of them are good friends! Surrounded by their secret service and entourage, the duo shared tidbits on how their friendship built up over the years, their current endeavors, and how they made an unlikely good team (all the while throwing cunning jabs at each other). Sean ended the night by sharing an exclusive screening of his upcoming Ukraine documentary, “Superpower,” at a local theater.

On the final day and our last dinner together, we were joined by Mary Poole and Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Mary shared how a tragic photo of a young refugee was what transfixed her into starting Soft Landing Missoula. She single-handedly (for a time) combated hostile opinions from locals in her neighborhood who didn’t take kindly to refugees at first, and now, years later, her organization is living proof of that positive change in attitudes, acceptance, and making a difference in people’s lives.

And just as phenomenally it started, a full circle moment happened on the very last day. As if it were like an evolution of the first day and activity, the Fellows led their own circle explaining who they were and how this weekend had inspired and changed them. They closed the Fellowship on their own terms, and it was a moment that was brimming with hope and deeply heart-warming to witness.

We at +MPU believe that the future is bright with our incumbent Brickyard leaders as the leaders laying the foundation forward — brick-by-brick. We can’t wait to see how they’ll transform their communities.

Find a local Brickyard where these Fellows are starting their +MPU Chapters here!