James E. Copple
“I met a guy” is right up there with “I know a guy,” a phrase defined by the Urban Dictionary as: “An excuse when you would rather not explain how you acquired something.” I just got off the phone with a community organizer in Chicago, and community organizers in Chicago “know a lot of guys.”
Lauren Seaman, who runs an initiative called “Reach 77,” briefed me on several areas of need they are responding to in the city. I asked how he started his work in Chicago, and he explained: “I was on the ‘L,’ and I was watching a guy copying sentences from a workbook onto a piece of paper. I realized he was learning English and that he might be West African. I grew up in the Côte d’lvoire , and so I asked him where he was from.
“Sure enough, he was from West Africa. We began a conversation that has turned into a long-term friendship that has now become a foundational to our effort in Chicago – helping immigrants learn the English language.”
This is what organizing is all about. You could study organizational management and development or graduate from prestigious schools, but when you are on the ground, “I met a guy” is probably the foundation of real transformation and organizational capacity-building. During our conversation, Lauren used the phrase “I met a guy” four times.
“I met another guy, who asked me what I did,” Lauren said, explaining he went on to tell him about Reach 77. The guy he was talking to was a steel manufacturer interested in social enterprise and helping survivors of human-trafficking. Within several days, the steel guy wrote a $30,000 check.
As I was listening, I realized much of what happens in our lives and organizations is about meeting someone. Those basic relationships become vehicles for opportunity and a catalyst for personal and social change.
Years ago, I met a guy on a plane who became interested in my work in substance abuse. That basic conversation turned into introductions, partnerships, and donors. Within a year of meeting that guy, we raised an additional $500,000 for our work.
Carla Sunberg, President of Nazarene Theological Seminary and a partner, is constantly reporting on “I met a guy” events. It has become part of her fundraising and programmatic narrative. She is always “meeting a guy” (BTW: Most of her IMAG events are with women.) Regardless, these events have become a catalyst for ideas, resources, and new networks for the seminary and for Carla. In my world, Carla is a “connector.” She brokers, facilitates, and advocates through relationships.
I am often asked: How do I raise money? How do I get access or have influence? How do I make change? My answer to all these questions: You have to show up. You have to be present. You have to engage. Human contact is the new engine of social transformation.
In his fascinating new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” Thomas Friedman asserts social change is happening because we are making global contacts; meeting new people; and learning new interventions and innovations. Friedman quotes historian William McNeill: “ ‘The principle factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.’ ”
Accelerated change is no longer ideological, but relational. Our social networks and the web they create are a fountain of information and opportunity. To use Sheryl Sandberg’s language in “Lean In: Work and the Will to Lead,” that “leaning in” and being at the table can make all the difference in the world. Your voice can be heard when you are present and at the table.
Information technology, and the global networks created by technology, drive accelerated communication. Exposure to ideas, people, and cultures exponentially increases change. The “I met a guy” experience is filled with surprises that can forever alter our lives and work. Do not fear them – embrace them!
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