Belonging in the Association Community

Theresa Parsons, CAE, CMP
2018-2019 TSAE Board Chair
Executive Director
Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE)

I was on a plane heading to Washington, D.C., to join a handful of board members on a lobbying trip. After working for another organization for a year, my association lured me back, and this particular morning was just my second since my return.

It was a painfully early flight heading to Washington, D.C. Despite my excitement for the mission and the opportunity to go back to the city from which I moved, I was groggy, had a year’s worth of industry happenings to catch up on and wasn’t looking forward to wearing strictly business attire for the next few days. We had scheduled nonstop meetings, and I didn’t bother packing anything but suits.

Suddenly grounded in Nashville with no explanation, I walked into a dark, eerily silent terminal. The gate signs were blank, and the only sign of life was at the nearby airport bar, where dozens and dozens gathered around televisions watching the horrific truth of that fateful day.

It was September 11, 2001.

We didn’t watch the coverage for long – they soon evacuated the airport and told us to wait as the airlines searched for sleeping rooms for hundreds of stranded passengers.

All I could think of was my board members who were flying different routes to the nation’s capital. Where were they? Did they make it on planes, or were they stopped before they boarded? The cell phone towers were overwhelmed, and I couldn’t connect with my board, family or friends for hours.

As with all of us, that day changed me. I spent the next four days wearing those suits in a Nashville hotel packed with stranded passengers who were learning that they lost friends and co-workers at the World Trade Center. We sat in our hotel lobby, sobbing, afraid of what had become of our world. I sat with a man who continuously redialed his cell phone, trying to get through to his childhood friend who was in one of the towers.

It was several days before a car could be rented by some of my board members who were grounded in Little Rock, and they made their way to Nashville to pick up our group. I’ll never forget the relief of sliding into that car, safe with my board members. I knew I enjoyed my work, but I didn’t realize until then just how deeply I cared about
my members.

On the 900-mile drive back, we counted the Walmart stores we could see from the highway, told stories to try to distract ourselves from the news, and ate junk food from gas stations without a care for calories or carbohydrates. We were shaken, depressed, and yet so grateful to have one another. We were all aware that we were family. While we were incredibly eager to get home to hug those waiting for us, there was something so special about the moment we were sharing … the journey home.

My moment came under extreme circumstances, but it doesn’t take a national crisis to feel this. As association professionals, we are at our best when we open our hearts, get involved in each other’s lives, and experience celebrations and pain. I have had members host my wedding and baby showers, hold my hand through divorce, share their personal challenges and secrets, and show me just how deeply they care about and trust me with their careers and reputations.

The same is true for the associations that serve us, such as TSAE. It isn’t enough just to be a member or to feel like we fit in. We need to feel like we belong. Fitting in feels superficial, like we are altering ourselves to be accepted. Belonging means being able to reflect who we are and embracing our stories.

I think back to tribes from school days. There were the jocks, the stoners, the book worms, the arts enthusiasts, the future farmers and countless others. At some point, we all tried to fit into a group that felt phony to us. It only takes one glance through old photographs to remember how awkward that felt, whether you were forcing yourself to partake in fashion, hobbies or other interests that did not reflect who you are and what was comfortable to you.

The beauty of associations is that we all have an opportunity to create this place for our members – a place to belong, not just fit in. A place where people speak their unique language and care about their passions. If we are doing it right, our members feel a sense of who they are when they gather.

And just like our own organizations, TSAE is that for us. We don’t have to pretend we are smarter or more experienced than we really are. We don’t have to feel like we can’t ask others for help because we are afraid of people knowing what we don’t know how to do. We don’t have to pretend we have all of the answers, because we have hundreds of people to reach out to for inspiration and guidance.

Instead of expending energy to fit into a group, it’s better to expend energy to find the group in which we fit. Fitting in lacks authenticity, while belonging is natural.

Some of you have been a member of TSAE for years, and others are just coming to this amazing community. Like many of you, I came into this community when I was relatively young. I knew at the time that I had so much to learn. I joined TSAE within months of moving to Austin to begin my position as Executive Director of Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education (TCASE), and I knew right away that I had found a place to belong. I have, and continue to find, lifelong friends who provide me professional and personal inspiration every day. And although I have been an association executive for 20 years, I frequently call TSAE friends for advice, guidance and inspiration.

As human beings, we are naturally social. Sometimes we come together to survive, like many of us did on September 11, 2001. Sometimes we come together to thrive, grow
and share.

It is natural for us to seek a place to belong and to be our authentic self. We all want to be part of something that represents what we value, and we are drawn to places and people that allow us to have the greatest sense of belonging. We choose neighborhoods, social environments and friends who fit who we are, and when we pick wrong, we never truly feel at our best.

I have friends in the TSAE community who I call to admit how I failed at work that day. I have those who I ask for really honest advice, whether it is kind or not. I have those who I call when I have an association success that those outside of the industry will not understand.

When I travel back in time to my first TSAE conference, I remember being an outsider. Not only did I move here from Washington, D.C., without a personal network, but I didn’t have a professional one in Texas either. It was the people who called on me for business – TSAE’s amazing affiliate members – who began introducing me around. As someone who is an extrovert with introverted moments, I seized on this and began building a network.

I was just 29 years old when I received an offer to become the executive director of TCASE. I wasn’t sure what my board saw in me, because I honestly had very little understanding of the profession I was entering. I was in complete awe of each year’s TSAE chair, admiring their command of the profession and the deep network they had established. But what struck me was to find out that they still reached out to their peers – and those just entering the profession – for advice and fresh ideas.

At the end of this year, it is my hope that all of you will know that the connections you crave are here. Sometimes it will take a little work to find them, but it will be extremely rewarding. Sign up for a peer-to-peer program, attend New Ideas and accept those invitations to events from our affiliate members. Whether you have been doing this for two months or 20 years, you will find that you will belong in the TSAE community.

Photo credit: Jetter Photography

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