Working as a journalist in the ‘90s meant I wielded a little bit of power. Print journalism still was a voice of authority then, and we were the popular kids in school as a result.
By virtue of my role, I was introduced to the “who’s who” at events. People returned my phone calls. I was invited to lunches and dinners, and the hosts always offered to pay.
Talk about privilege!
Of course, my colleagues and I knew we weren’t special as individuals. But it was impossible to grasp life on the other side.
You can imagine my surprise when I began working in the nonprofit sector, where I had nothing to give and lots to take. Specifically, I needed resources and money. I was the opposite of popular – I was the person whose phone calls you avoided.
I remember the exact day when I understood the wide canyon between my experience, and how the rest of the world works.
I had retained from my reporter days the self-assurance to pick up the phone and call anyone, regardless of their status, and that often got me in the door. I landed an appointment with a prominent businessman to talk about my nonprofit.
At the time, I was executive director of a youth development organization that taught documentary arts in after school and summer programs. We had the best instructors in writing, photography, and videography – and, we also paid the youth for their time because these were kids who needed after-school jobs.
The idea wasn’t to build an army of Next Gen Journalists, but to teach critical thinking, writing, communication, and storytelling in a project-based environment.
My agenda with this businessman was simply to build rapport; I wasn’t asking for anything. But here’s how the eye-opening conversation went:
ME: “Who wouldn’t want to support youth learning the documentary arts? I think everyone would love us if they understood the rigor and creativity of our programs.”
BUSINESSMAN: “No. I don’t think that’s something very many people would care about.”
BAM! Just like that I entered the world of “Nobody Is Kissing Your Butt Anymore.”
Shock is literally what I felt, and who knows if my face gave me away.
Of course, I knew that people had different philanthropic priorities, though I’d assumed this businessman would think like me. More importantly, I quickly realized my inability to navigate a professional conversation when it was my turn to do the convincing.
Influence. I had none, and I needed some, and it wasn’t going to get handed to me by credential anymore. Gone were the days of cool lanyards that scored me backstage access.
I had to learn an entirely new way of communicating . . . and I did not like it.
To me, influence had always seemed “used car salesman-y”: It’s about fleecing or manipulating someone. We’ve all succumbed to this character at one point or another. (We all own extra insurance on our toaster ovens, right?!)
In contrast, journalists are trained to take in many perspectives and weave together a tapestry of ideas. Even when we held opinions (which, of course, we all did), the noble goal (back then; today is much different) was to mitigate and challenge our opinions. Our aim was balance and community service.
Now I had to learn how to assert an opinion. I needed a new mindset and a different kind of courage.
NEXT EPISODE: It dawns on me that I’ve never had trouble accessing my opinions about other people’s attire and footwear. Especially in airports.
Ring ring . . . Hello, Fab Five? Do you need any help? No? Ok.