Where Everybody Knows Your Name

12 Mar

When I used to go to nonprofit events and trainings in the Bay Area and mentioned where I worked, I would get broad recognition from many people. People would say, “I get emails from you!” or “I’ve been to your conference!” or “I read your articles.” It always felt gratifying and validating to know that I was part of an organization that many people knew and respected.

In Southern California, I have a small circle of people and nonprofits that know me from my Bay Area work. But my new job has me frequently interacting with communities and organizations that are brand-new to me. When I share my background, I get blank stares. I’ve actually gotten into this bizarre habit of not naming where I used to work when introducing myself to others because I automatically assume that people won’t recognize it anyway. I honestly didn’t even notice that I had started omitting it until a couple of my co-workers repeatedly filled it in for me.

The organization I currently work for is well-known and respected among certain sectors of the nonprofit world, mostly in Los Angeles but somewhat statewide and nationally, but it’s largely outside the social justice and community organizing world I was a part of. I didn’t anticipate how lonely this would feel.

But sometimes unexpected connections happen. A woman that I knew in college in the Bay Area recently moved to Southern California and was at a conference coordinated by my co-workers. She found out that I work here and left me a note to get in touch. I had to google her to make sure I knew who she was. I literally have had no contact with her for 12 years. We recently had lunch and it was amazing to re-connect. She also commiserated about the challenges of trying to find community here.

When I go to nonprofit events and trainings now, I get giddy when people recognize my name or previous organization. I’ve been here almost 8 months and it’s only happened about 8 times, but I’m walking on air for the rest of the day when it does.

I swear it’s not an ego thing. It’s just me wanting there to be a basis for shared trust and relationship-building. I get nervous when people I meet through work are assessing me based on how I show up in that moment – which is often “young” and “quiet” and “assistant”. It’s a totally different dynamic when someone comes up to me and can say “I know you do good work.”

It’s a challenge to be at square one with so many people. But it’s also an opportunity to create a new image. I could be known for something different. What do you recommend? “I do bad work”? “I incorporate karaoke into my fundraising training”? “I think business suits paired with flip flops is the next big thing”?

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