By Lynette Lamb
Shortly before the 2018 elections, a Republican who once worked for the Chamber of Commerce held a fundraiser for Democrat Ilhan Omar, now a U.S. representative from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.
This unlikely turn of events came about because, back in 2014–15, the two were in the same cohort of Humphrey Policy Fellows, a 30-year-old public affairs leadership program for emerging and mid-career professionals.
“Minnesota is oriented toward thoughtful political engagement and good governance,” says (former) Humphrey Policy Fellows program Executive Director Kate Cimino. “I like to think that our program is one of those places where Minnesotans can come together across sectors and political differences. It’s part of sustaining and building the reputation we have in our state.”
Each year, roughly 35 individuals are chosen for the nine-month program, in which they meet monthly for full-day sessions on policy, politics, leadership, and other topics. Together, they also take a four-day study trip to Washington, DC. Fellows—who hail from across the state’s business, government, and nonprofit sectors and come from both rural and metro areas—are often nominated by their employers, who frequently sponsor their involvement.
Scholarships are available as well. The cohorts are diverse in terms of the age, race, ethnicity, expertise, and perspectives of the participants.
Helping leaders build their professional network is one of the program’s chief aims, says its academic director Professor Larry Jacobs, the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies. “Influence depends on finding allies,” he says, explaining why that is important. “The Policy Fellows program is one marvelous pool of allies.”
Among the best examples of these Policy Fellow alliances is a quartet from the 2013-14 cohort: Seth Boffeli, national advisor for fraud prevention at AARP; Pahoua Yang Hoffman, executive director of the Citizens League; Alene Tchourumoff, senior vice president of community development and engagement at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis; and Jonathan Weinhagen, CEO and president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“These four have kept in touch both personally and professionally,” says Cimino. “They’ve all moved into greater leadership roles in various Twin Cities organizations, and through their connections they've helped each other to innovate and to open career doors.”
Tchourumoff and Hoffman met while working together on a class project about the socially oriented local brewery Finnegans. Tchourumoff and Weinhagen first connected on the group’s January visit to DC. “That intense, out-of-town trip provided us with lots of opportunities to get to know people,” Weinhagen says. “I don’t think I slept all week.”
Adds Boffeli, “I often think they should hold that trip earlier in the fellowship year, so people can benefit longer from the way it coalesces friendships.”
Since their year as Policy Fellows, the four have continued to connect over work and community projects. Perhaps the strongest professional connection to emerge from the group is the one between Tchourumoff and Weinhagen.
Those two—Tchourumoff in her previous position as chair of the Metropolitan Council and Weinhagen as CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber—worked together for several years on expanding the Twin Cities light rail system. They traveled multiple times to Washington, DC as part of a team seeking federal support for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which extends the METRO Green Line to Eden Prairie.
“We were asking the federal government to invest in Twin Cities light rail,” Tchourumoff says, explaining it was important to show that local government and transit officials shared a vision and priorities with the business community. “Jonathan brought the vital business point of view to Washington. It was really important that our region could speak with one voice.” That resonated with federal partners, who gave the project a preliminary go-ahead.
The strong Humphrey connection was key to the group’s effectiveness, Weinhagen says. “To be able to step into that work with a pre-existing relationship was so important. We already trusted each other.”
Weinhagen has since tapped several former Policy Fellows, including Hoffman and Tchourumoff, to speak at Minneapolis Regional Chamber events. Tchourumoff once agreed to speak at a Minneapolis Chamber event via text, and only later realized it was at the Chamber’s annual meeting with hundreds of guests. “And Pahoua said he did the same thing to her,” Tchourumoff says.
Fellows have supported each other not only through job-related matters but also through health and family challenges. When Weinhagen’s family lived through a house fire, for example, Policy Fellows rallied around them.
“These relationships are valuable to me because they go beyond work,” says Hoffman. “Too often we do not get to know the whole person, and as adults, these kinds of opportunities are rare. But because the Policy Fellows program is a year long, it allowed us to meet and engage with people regularly, for a longer period of time.”
The foursome is quick to point out that theirs are not the only lasting connections among their 2013-14 cohort. The backyard sauna of Paul Winkelaar, political action specialist for Education Minnesota, provides a regular gathering spot for Policy Fellows, as do family barbecues hosted by Sara Sternberger, former executive director of Free Arts Minnesota.
As for the original four, well, Weinhagen admits, “happy hours are common.”
Program alumni go on to lead in many sectors and regions. “Policy Fellows are the civic engines in Minnesota,” says Jacobs. “Becoming a fellow creates access to an extraordinary network of talented doers across sectors and across Minnesota’s increasingly diverse communities.”
Gaining access to that pool was especially important for both Boffeli and Tchourumoff, who became Policy Fellows shortly after moving to the Twin Cities—Boffeli from Madison, Wisconsin, and Tchourumoff from Washington, DC.
“I was brand new in town and wanted a network,” says Boffeli. “I ended up finding a lot of people I could work with.”
Tchourumoff, who then was working as director of planning for Hennepin County, says the program sped up the process of getting introduced to and building relationships with other professionals. She went on to serve as state rail director and chair of the Met Council before stepping into her current role at the Fed.
Connecting Across Differences
That Policy Fellows have an opportunity to form relationships with people from different cultural backgrounds, professions, and geographic regions is a vital aspect of the program, says Cimino. The diversity of their cohort was striking to Boffeli and Tchourumoff when in class they discussed readings such as a collection of essays by Michael Perry, a rural Wisconsin volunteer firefighter and emergency responder.
“As we were talking about the book, half the group could relate to it and the other half struggled to understand that world,” Boffeli says.
When the following month the group read a book about a refugee living in the United States, cohort members were equally divided in their understanding. Says Tchourumoff, herself an Asian American who grew up in suburban New Jersey, “In those early days in Minnesota, it was by far the most diverse group I had ever been part of here. I still remember reading Perry’s book and being amazed that it took a rural ambulance over an hour to answer an emergency call.”
The connections made in class led to further enriching connections. Weinhagen points to the time when Hoffman, of the Citizens League, put together a cultural exchange with classmates Winkelaar, who grew up on Minnesota’s Iron Range, and Michael Van Keulen, founder of a group that works with the Somali community. “That never would have happened without the Humphrey Fellows connection,” he says.
The contacts Hoffman made during those Iron Range visits were useful recently when, as a hiring director on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s transition team, she sought northern Minnesotans to fill roles in state government.
“One of my favorite moments each year comes at the end, when Fellows report that they never thought they would become close friends and collaborators with someone from a different work sector or political party,” Jacobs says.
That kind of reaching beyond one’s own silo is vital in today’s world, Cimino says.
“As we see increasing polarization in our politics, bringing together groups like the Humphrey Fellows is the kind of work we really should be doing,” she says. “Connecting and humanizing across differences is what the world needs now. It’s a powerful thing to connect with people who have different views from your own.”
And when it comes to Humphrey Policy Fellows, those connections abide.
Watch a video of the Policy Fellows on Twin Cities PBS
Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
This piece was originally published in Humphrey magazine.