MY COMNET STORY
What is ComNet all about? What’s it like? Let me tell you a story…
My ComNet Story
I put on a sundress and sandals and head down to the beach. It’s the opening night party for ComNet15 in San Diego.
I love parties. I always throw a party for myself on my birthday. I’m the one who organizes the party when a friend moves away. And when she turned 13, I threw my dog a bark mitzvah.
But this ComNet party is different. I don’t know anybody here. Anybody. I’m new to The Communications Network.
In front of me are hundreds of people who are clearly having a lot of fun. I see people getting big hugs. I hear the “Oh my God” screeches when people spot somebody they probably haven’t seen in a while.
It’s the kind of scene I’m familiar with because it plays out at every party I throw.
But in this instance, because I don’t know anybody, I freeze at the edge of the beach. I have just taken off my sandals and added them to the line-up of shoes. But I feel like I can’t get my feet to move.
Suddenly I’m back in junior high, when I am the last one picked for the kickball team. And the softball team. And the dodge ball team. And I’m back at my senior year of high school, when nobody asks me to the prom. These things never made me doubt my self-worth. But they did make me feel like I’m destined to be an outsider.
And I think, “Why am I putting myself back in the same type of situation?”
Honestly, it’s because, at the time, my professional life is in a rut. I’m working hard and producing good work. But not great work. And not much that I think could help me make a difference in the world in the way I desperately want to do.
My work is getting stale. And I know it. And, truthfully, I’m feeling lonely. I’m so busy working that I don’t have time to meet other communicators who, perhaps, could inspire me.
So, when I get an email that mentions the ComNet conference, I ask a colleague about it and she raves about it. She attended a few years earlier and loved it. I’d tried other communications conferences and networking events over the years and found them mostly a waste of time and money. But her enthusiasm makes me want to give ComNet a chance.
A writer from the Daily Show, one of my favorite shows, is one of the keynote speakers. Just about every breakout session seems relevant, interesting and fresh. There is a pre-conference workshop about data visualization, a topic I am trying to learn more about.
So here I am at the ComNet15 opening night reception. I want to disappear, just as the sun is starting to do in front of me. But I take a deep breath…and head over to the bar to order a margarita. It is a strong one.
I haven’t taken more than two sips when a woman walks up to me, smiles and says “Hi!” She wants to know where I live and where I work and what brings me to the conference. Within a few minutes, her friend comes over and the three of us start talking.
And that’s all it takes.
I talk nonstop to people all night. Literally never stop. I only make it to one of the food trucks to grab dinner because I get waylaid so many times along the way. Either people introduce themselves to me or I see something on their name tag that creates an opening for a conversation. Me, who got picked last for kickball, is starting conversations with total strangers!
Not only do I have a great time but I am one of the last people to leave the party. In fact, I don’t even know the party has ended until a friendly cop comes up to the 10 or so of us environmental communicators sitting around a small bonfire. He kindly informs us that it is time to call it a night.
The rest of the week at ComNet15 is a whirlwind. I make new friends during coffee breaks. I meet people seated next to me during breakout sessions. I meet people on the buffet line. It is so easy—I think because we all have something in common. A passion for being strategic communicators for causes we really care about.
ComNet15 pumps life back into me. And I don’t want that feeling to stop, so I leave the conference committed to getting involved in Communications Network events when I get back home.
As I stand in line at the airport, waiting to board my flight to DC, I spot Sean Gibbons in front of me. I’ve never met Sean but was impressed by what I heard from him when he spoke at the conference.
I tap him on the shoulder. In the two seconds it takes him to turn around, I think I shouldn’t have done that. After three days of being the master of ceremonies, he has got to be tired of talking to people. But I also think I should’ve done that. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned during three days at ComNet15, it’s that making connections is important and, in fact, fun. In that moment, I am much more confident about meeting new people then I had been when I landed at that airport three days earlier.
I introduce myself and tell Sean how much I loved the conference. He thanks me – genuinely – and, before I know it, we have plans to meet for coffee in DC. That turns into another coffee meeting. And then a request to join the ComNetDC leadership team. And, not long thereafter, a request to join the Board of Directors.
It’s been the best four years of my communications career. I’ve learned so much about the newest trends in communications. I’ve met a ton of interesting people. I’ve discovered that I have a hidden talent for connecting people.
Thanks to this community we call The Communications Network, I got my communications mojo back.
And I’ve been to some great ComNet parties.
My ComNet Story
Thursday, October 4th, 2018.
It is five days before The Communications Network’s big annual conference - ComNet. 2018 is going to be our biggest ever. 1,000 people are registered.
But, on that Thursday, in cities across the country, thousands of hotel workers go on strike - including in San Francisco at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, where we’re headed.
And we don’t have a plan B.
I’m on The Network’s Board. So I know ComNet is our biggest source of revenue. It’s how we keep the lights on, how we pay our staff, and how we advance our mission to serve communications professionals in the social sector.
ComNet18 is also where I’m going to become board chair.
Which is exciting, and an honor, and completely intimidating - the people who preceded me are all so accomplished and impressive. They are my idols and mentors.
I am only a few years into my first job in this field, after a career that has meandered from theatre to education to strategy consulting.
But, they asked me to lead. And, despite doubts I am up to the task, I say, OK.
So, before that Thursday in October, before the strike breaks out, all that summer, my main preoccupation is what I’m going to say when I step onstage in front of 1,000 of my peers, to welcome them to ComNet - something the chair always does.
It is not usually a very memorable part of the proceedings.
Most years, it’s just, Good morning. Welcome. I’m the chair. Communications is still important. And, have a great ComNet.
Then, it’s exit stage left. And the real show starts.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s my theatre background. I keep wondering if there’s another way I can use my time at the podium.
You only get one chance to make a first entrance, right?
One Saturday in July, on a long morning run in Boston, it comes to me:
I see myself onstage and I am not in the typical uniform - the slacks, the open-collar button down, the navy blazer.
I am in a red lycra bodysuit.
Head to toe.
I’ve got the ComNet logo emblazoned on my chest - like Spiderman with the spider.
And my entrance - it’s not just enter stage left.
It is live-action movie, animation, then rock music, as the doors at the back swing open, and I come running up the aisle in the supersuit.
And then I give my speech.
I don’t know. Maybe I run too far that morning. Or don’t drink enough water.
But I can’t shake the idea.
So, I start working on it.
I recruit two of my kids - Drew and Maya, ages 7 and 10 at the time - to help me with the video and the animation. I go underwater with the project for a weekend.
When I’m done, I send it to Sean Gibbons, CEO of The Communications Network.
Am I crazy? I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “and I love it!”
So, I get to work on the speech.
And the days are flying by until Thursday, October 4th, when I get a message in my inbox from Unite Here - the union representing the hotel workers - announcing the strike. They write me. They write Sean. They write every board member, speaker, and sponsor listed on the ComNet website.
They urge us not to meet, eat, or stay at the Westin St. Francis. And to contact management to express our support for the workers.
The strike also hits Boston, where I live.
I ride my bicycle to work every day. My route takes me by two Marriott properties.
When I get to the first - the W - I pull to the curb to take in the scene.
Dozens of hotel workers are marching in front of the entrance.
They’re in red T-shirts with bold black letters on a white background reading, ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH.
Some bang on orange plastic buckets. Others blow whistles. Someone is leading a chant through a megaphone.
In front of the hotel, an Uber stops. A couple steps out. They get their bags and roll them passed the picket lines, as the workers’ chant becomes:
Boom boom boom
“Don’t check in!”
Boom boom boom
“Shame on you!”
Boom boom boom
The thought of crossing a picket line like that, or asking our guests to, or climbing into my red lycra bodysuit… It makes my heart sink.
We call an emergency board meeting.
The first Board members to speak up are empathetic with the hotel workers. Several come from organizations focused on poverty, worker’s rights, or immigration. Some are themselves children of immigrants, or of union members, or grew up in poverty. They know the level of sacrifice these workers were making - what it means to live from paycheck to paycheck. And how bad things need to be to put that at risk.
Someone says, we need to get to work exploring alternate sites. A few others agree.
But, we get stuck on the hard reality that the Network has only five staff. It takes them 18 months to plan and execute a conference at this scale.
In these final days, they are already flat out. How could we ask them to do even more?
And then there is our responsibility as fiscal stewards.
Our contract is completely in the hotel’s favor. They would stay open no matter what - hiring temporary workers if need be. If we walked away, we would be on the hook for up to a million dollars. Maybe more. A potentially lethal blow for our small nonprofit.
Maybe, someone suggests, we can find a way to acknowledge and show respect for the workers, even bring their voices onto our stage, but still go forward at the Westin as planned.
Three board members - notably, our three Latino/Latina members - make it clear that, if that is the board’s decision, they’ll support it. But they won’t cross the picket line themselves.
I don’t know what to say.
Maybe, someone suggests, we can create remote gathering places - conference rooms and coffee shops, where attendees who don’t want to cross the picket line can watch the livestream together, and still feel in some way connected.
It was the best idea on the table. The board agrees that Sean will call the host committee together the next morning, to brief them, to get their perspective on the situation on the ground, to test the remote-location idea, and ask for their help.
And then we end the call and hang up.
Right away, my cell phone rings.
It is Jesse Salazar - in his final days as our board chair.
“I am really concerned,” he says.
“So am I,” I say. “What can we do?”
“We need help,” he says. “We need advice.”
Over the next few hours, Jesse and I call trusted colleagues, friends, and mentors.
One former board chair says:
“Picture this: hundreds of nonprofit and foundation leaders cross a picket line where working people are fighting for a living wage and their basic, human dignity. And, once they cross that line, these privileged professionals wine and dine under crystal chandeliers, as they talk about equity and justice. That picture is offensive.”
Another warns us, “If you play this wrong, you’re not only going to lose conference attendees, but speakers, sponsors, funders, board members, and members. The whole thing could come crashing down.”
None of this is particularly reassuring. Or confidence building.
Instead of celebrating our 40th anniversary, am I going to be the board chair who presides over this organization’s demise?
Thankfully, one friend and colleague gives us practical advice:
“Get Sean extra capacity now!”
That night, at 10PM, we call the board together again. We approve $150,000 in emergency funds to hire a crisis communications and logistics team.
Four days to ComNet.
We hold a conference call with the Host Committee.
After we lay out the situation, the first person to speak is Clarence B. Jones, who was an advisor and speechwriter for Martin Luther King. He helped pen the “I have a Dream” speech.
Dr. Jones was one of our keynote speakers in 2015. And he has kept coming back.
He lives in the Bay Area. And, in 2018, he volunteered with our host committee.
“I love this organization,” says Dr. Jones. “I wish the striking hotel workers could know each of you and the important work you do. I appreciate your wanting to navigate this decision in the right way. You have my support. As for myself, however, I will not be there in the hall with you. It would be sacrilegious to the memory of Dr. King. Given the role that hotel and restaurant workers played in the civil rights movement, I cannot and will not cross this picket line.”
The silence on the line is total.
When others finally speak, their words echo Dr. Jones:
“I won’t cross a picket line.”
“We support you. You can have our conference room. But, we won’t be there.”
Suddenly, it becomes clear - we aren’t just looking at a few conscientious objectors.
If we go ahead, it will be a mass exodus.
After the host committee call, Sean, Jesse, and I get right back on the phone together.
We all know what we have to do - move the conference.
And then, somehow, we do it.
The staff takes it to 11 and works around the clock. The Host Committee, Board members, funders, Network members, first-time ComNet attendees - people step up with creativity, commitment, and this unmistakable joy.
What had taken 18 months of planning is re-built from scratch over the next 48 hours.
By the time people arrive, they find completely different - and amazing - venues. There is catering for 1,000 people. All surrounded by a steady stream of communications with our attendees about what we knew as we knew it, and what it meant for them.
It was incredible.
I always love ComNet.
It’s the one conference I make a point of going to every year.
But ComNet18 in San Francisco was unforgettable.
I saw how much more we are than a professional association.
We are a network.
And I understood why diversity is so critical.
Why we need different perspectives and different life experiences on our board, in leadership, on our staff.
And to have relationships where we can trust each other enough to listen and wrestle through challenging stuff together.
There’s a reason you shouldn’t fill a board entirely with white guys from Greenwich, Connecticut.
Don’t get me wrong. We mean well. We have a good idea now and then.
But, Lord, do we have some blind spots. And to really see and understand, to act with wisdom, compassion, and courage, we need help.
Among other things, it’s the only way I know to be able to zip in to a full lycra bodysuit, and climb onstage before 1,000 colleagues, and give a speech with a clear conscience and a full heart.
Not everyone’s idea of a good time, I know.
But, I loved it. And I got to do it.