Networking. I used to think of it as an awful, dirty word and an even sneakier and sly practice. From passing around cards to shaking hands, everything seemed fake and manufactured and disingenuous. Yet people applauded it, spoke so highly of the benefits and importance of this practice, this networking business. What was I missing?
This past August I witnessed a kind of networking that completely changed my mind about what it is and why it’s really important.
It was a humid, overcast day in Ocala, Florida, and we were building a home for Cynthia and William King. A couple of weeks earlier, I had started working with ABILITY Awareness as a new AmeriCorps volunteer, and I was excited to witness the ABILITY Build program for the first time. In addition to Habitat for Humanity site supervisors and construction managers, my coworker Laura Evans and veteran ABILITY Build volunteer John Siciliano, we worked among a team of fresh ABILITY Corps volunteers from United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida and Developmental Service Trainers, Inc., an organization which helps people with developmental disabilities learn job skills to become more employable.
Although most of the volunteers had never been on a build before, Durren Omens immediately started reinforcing the frames around the doors and windows with thin metal braces, each about two feet long. After a few heavy hits of the hammer, the nails were in. Durren explained that his uncle worked in the construction trade, so he’d learned a lot from him.
While about half of the team sweated in the morning heat, struggling to align two-by-fours to build the internal frame walls, Durren made his way around the whole house with ease, eagerly asking what to do next when he’d finished a task. Half of our volunteers went to another nearly-completed Habitat house just behind the King’s house to help level the dirt in the yard with shovels and rakes.
By two in the afternoon, the construction workers were ready to start packing up. The clouds that had shaded us from the hot, August sun all morning were darkening. Within the hour, rain would begin to fall.
But the enthusiasm of the ABILITY Corps never wavered. Some volunteers suggested coming out again on Friday, and, when they were told that Habitat would not be building that day, they returned with a follow-up offer to come back on Saturday. Even some of the shyer volunteers, who had expressed hesitation at coming out that day, now confidently asked when they could help out again. Meanwhile, I watched the trainers and caregivers exchange information with workers from the Habitat affiliate so that future builds could be arranged.
At the ABILITY Build I was able to observe the value of networking, particularly for people with disabilities. All too often, businesses, nonprofits, and volunteer organizations underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. This perception has led to a nearly 70 percent unemployment rate for working-age adults with disabilities, and has limited volunteer opportunities for all people with disabilities. Through the ABILITY Build program is not only breaking barriers to entry by changing perceptions about what people with disabilities can do, but is also creating valuable networking opportunities where workers can meet people who might connect them to places where their skills are needed.
My first impression of networking was that it was simply a cheap way to weasel my way into a job by meeting important people rather than by demonstrating my skills and abilities. But since my experience in Ocala, I’ve come to see networking opportunities in a much different light. Networking serve as both a means to demonstrate ability and to build bridges between people and companies for many to cross—not just people seeking help or employment.
At the Ocala build, we helped connect the Habitat effort to a new resource of volunteers, proved that volunteers with disabilities could a boon to the organization, and made it possible for a disability training program to find a new way of teaching basic working skills. As a result of the relationships that were formed in that experience, hundreds of people now have increased access to opportunities. And I can’t find anything sneaky, sly, or dirty about that at all!
by Dana Nelson