Back when I’d first moved to Bonn, I was pretty sure I was going to become a photographer. So I bought a DSLR, made my family pose for hundreds of photographs, and spent hours playing around on LightRoom, trying in vain to become a pro with the Adobe Suite.
It was during this photo-frenzy that I met Katrina. She wanted to get rid of her telephoto lens, and I was under the impression that the more lenses I had, the better of a photographer I would be.
We met one evening just after a 6pm drizzle, and, standing in the cobblestoned city centre, discovered we had lots more in common that a love of beautiful images and the gadgets that make them. Months later, when I changed jobs and moved to an office that was five minutes from Katrina’s building, we met for lunch. She was in a rush that day, but still found time to share lots of smiles AND paid for my meal. I figured we’d see each other soon, and I’d repay the favour, but a couple of years went by and we never met up. I started working from home, Katrina had a baby, we lost touch.
Two weeks ago, she called me.
“Malaika, I’m really struggling. I can’t stand my job, everyone just talks about money, money, money, I’m ready to quit and do something new, but everyone is telling me I’m crazy.”
Katrina, you’re not crazy, I told her. “It’s completely reasonable to want to do something you’re truly passionate about, and it’s part of what makes life really good. So why shouldn’t you have that?”
“Yes, I know,” she said, sounding morose. She sounded pretty down, and when I asked her what was getting to her, here’s what she said:
“But everyone around me talks only about money, benefits, security, etc. I can’t find like-minded people who are not all about that, and therefore -I actually don’t think that I have any appropriate connections. Not just to find a good job, but rather people who are on the same page as me, who will not stare at me with a blank face while I explain why I have decided to quit a job that provides me with a lot of money, benefits and security. Honestly, I am tired of explaining it already. And of that face telling me – YOU MUST BE CRAZY!”
“Katrina,” I wanted to tell her, “There are hundreds of people in the world who don’t talk ONLY about money, benefits, security. You’ve just got to go out there and meet them!”
“I am sure you have a lot of acquaintances who are like-minded,” she said. “I would love to become a part of a community that maybe shares ideas, or works on joint projects to make a difference in people’s lives, environmental issues, social projects, etc. How do I meet them?”
Here’s what I told her about where to get started:
Because so many NGO workers are expats, and vice versa, you’ll always find opportunities to discuss social issues among others who have come to your city from another country. Worried about living in too-small a town? Even the tiniest villages have expats, or Peace Corps Volunteers, or recent graduates teaching English. Some of my closest friends in Madagascar were French agronomists working in the tiny town of Ambatondrazaka, where I lived, and though we were just five foreigners, when they offered to host dinner parties, I invited the local Peace Corps Volunteers, and suddenly we were a group of ten people passionately discussing climate change and the sustainability of rice farming. Expat groups tend to be inclusive, friendly, and treasure troves of connections when you are job-hunting.
Although my least-favourite way to meet people (since most of their events seem to revolve around alchohol and attract many with poor social skills, Internations exists in nearly every capital city, hosts well-attended events, and exists for the express purpose of bringing locals and expats together. Many people tell me that the crowd Internations attracts varies enormously by city. You can try attending at least one event, and give yourself the goal of talking for at least 15 minutes with at least one person. The last time I did that, I met a Rwandan refugee who spoke perfect Spanish, an Australian surfer and his Dutch-Chinese-Singaporean girlfriend, and an American economist, all of whom have since become close friends.
Back when I first moved to Paris, I was considering doing a consultancy at the OECD, a job I’d long salivated over. A friend invited me to an after-work event organised for the “young” people who come from all of the OECD’s member countries to intern there, or those who work at the OECD and don’t already have a Paris-based friend circle. The first time I went, to a dark bar in the 15th arrondissement, I spotted a girl wearing a bright red dress that fit her perfectly, and began a conversation about clothes from Zara. Besides being wise and beautiful and super-smart, she was gentle, and had kind eyes. I liked her so much, I got her number and we met the next week to have Saturday brunch. Despite her crazy schedule and the fact that we lived on opposite sides of Paris, a friendship blossomed, and though we’d met at a networking event, we never talked about work. But when she did talk about education policy, her brown eyes alit with true passion for the topic, I could relate, and she listened without judgment to my career and personal worries. Paris has the OECD and UNESCO, but you can find people of all ages passionate about policy and global issues wherever there is a major UN agency. Bonn has its group, Geneva has the massive UNING community, New York has its UN interns. Many of them also hang out at Internations 🙂
Besides being a way to host people, CouchSurfing attracts every brand of crunchy granola former hippies, many of whom are passionate about environmental conservation, and will happily join you for an Al Gore book club or show you how to start composting. Simply using the ‘Events’ feature to create an event around a topic of your interest, or look for the group nearest your geographic area and write a post inviting people who are equally passionate about sustainable fashion or refugee relocation to get in touch.
Many of us first got introduced to human rights and social justice work at university. And universities that offer international development degrees often host events to foster networking, increase awareness, and sometimes even raise funds for a particular issue. International development degrees are not specific to global capitals; BYU in Utah has a thriving programme, as does Dhaka, Perth, and Santiago. Look for the major universities in your town or city, and pencil the events on their website – many of which are free and open to the public – into your calendar.
Do you have any suggestions for Katrina on how to meet like-minded people? Where have you met your best friends?