People of Pace: Donovan McKnight

Introducing Donovan McKnight, a digital content producer at Pace where he pursues in-the-field reporting for our clients. Outside of Pace, he’s the co-director of Ethnosh, an organization that introduces people to international, immigrant-owned restaurants in Greensboro through experiential community dining and editorial ethnographic content. He’s taught creative writing and has worked with the North Carolina Humanities Council to help communities across the state explore their histories and cultures.

Donovan is married to a director of refugee resettlement and together they’re raising five chickens, one of which is named after a Kardashian. Read on to learn more about Donovan, his work at Pace, and what drives his passion for connecting communities through cultural experiences with food.

How would you describe what you do at Pace?

I help our clients tell stories about their brands. I work on a creative team that publishes magazines and web content that tell the stories of millions of people across the country, across the world.

What type of trajectory landed you at Pace?

I studied literature in school, and what you study there is the best of the best; these are the stories that connect you to the world, to history, and tie us to what makes us human. The more you study that—the more you practice that mentality—the better understanding you have for the world and its people.

After college, I started working in public humanities, and then here.

Pace pop up event
(L-R): President Craig Waller, Senior Art Director Sam Bridges, and Donovan McKnight grab a drink together during a recent Pace Pop-Up celebration at the Greensboro office.

Public humanities?

I’d travel around North Carolina and help communities explore their histories. We’d host events in different communities where the people had expressed interest in their cultural pasts, and we’d bring in scholars and hundreds of residents to have a discussion about their narrative. And it was participatory. The public would contribute and you’d learn as much from the 80-year-old raising her hand to talk about her lived history as you did from the scholar.

So you’re a storyteller or at least a story… discoverer. How do you feel that fits in with your work here?

When looking at an audience or the people who make up a place, you have to ask who are these people, where do they live, what kind of work do they do, what kind of economic engines drive the area, what brings them joy? I apply that to every project and client: who are they, what’s their history, what are they trying to become? Who are they trying to communicate with? Part of my job is to actually walk into retail stores across the country and hear the audience reactions to the work we put out: admiration, adoration, frustration. Not only do we take that back to the client, but we adapt our work processes and focuses based upon that. In some ways, we’re closer to the audience than the clients are.

Tell me about Ethnosh.

Ethnosh is not critics or restaurant rankers. It’s not about reviewing food or anything about that. It’s about immersion. It’s like what Pace does—telling the story about the restaurant: where the owners are from, where they’re located, what that part of the world is like, what they bring to our community.

We host events for local international restaurants, tiendas, grocery stores, food trucks, the food sources for different cultures, and for a few hours, we’ll have hundreds of people from the community there. They might just taste the food, but they make a connection with the culture.

A trained chemist, Saliba Hanhan now stands behind the counter of Jerusalem Market, the grocery and deli he began more than two decades ago after fleeing the violence in Palestine. [Photo by Laath Martin]
Our goal is to bring people from our community here in Greensboro, North Carolina, to a part of town they’re not familiar with, to a culture they’re not familiar with, a type of food they might hold reservations about, so that they can really develop a familiarity with it, and build relationships across these barriers.

So no reservations, kind of like Anthony Bourdain?

Anthony Bourdain. When he goes into a community, he’s confident and respectful. He has an adeptness that commands respect, but he can walk into any part of the world and pass that authority off to anyone in the room. He’s trained himself to step into the unfamiliar, to listen and observe, and to extract the beauty and significance that his audience can learn from. They don’t just enjoy it as entertainment; it becomes empowering. And that’s exactly what I’m after. Enjoyment. Awareness. Growth.

Abel Vilnor stands in the doorway of King-Queen Haitian Cuisine, the food truck that’s uniting the once-fragmented Haitian community in Greensboro. [Photo by Jon Black Photography]

That sounds an awful lot like the Pace tagline “Content. Engagement. Results.”

Ha-ha. Well, I find that restaurants are just like clients; there are barriers that exist for their audience. Geography, unfamiliarity, aesthetics… So I try to find a way to break down those barriers. They’ve got a trusted ambassador, which is us.

Romona Estevez is owner and chef at Quisqueya Restaurant, a Dominican eatery that doubles as a nightclub. Quisqueya, meaning “mother of all lands,” is the native name for the Dominican Republic. [Photo by Jon Black Photography]
I try to come up with creative and participatory ways to reach audiences and find those cracks of light, a way into an individual’s trust. When you share an experience with someone, you can better understand them. And not just on a basic level, but you begin to understand how they live, what they love, and then you can better understand how to bridge those barriers.

Header photo by Paper Bridge Media

By David Luther

Keep reading in News and Events