Alexandria Brown Bag: Listening in Action

Written by Talisa Thomas-Hall on November 30, 2017

The Alexandria Brown Bag, founded by Talisa Thomas-Hall, ACB ALB, is a networking group for association professionals hosted by Marketing General, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. Meeting monthly, their remit is to connect for the purpose of sharing best practices and professional development, as well as networking and collaboration opportunities. Talisa Thomas-Hall is President and Chief Strategist of The Center for Effective Organizations, and she and her co-facilitator Cheryl Rothbart are the original parents of the Alexandria Brown Bag family (for that is what it has become).

Sometimes making a mark on a space isn’t about implementing revolutionary changes from outside.

Sometimes, it is about listening to what people are saying, and engendering transformation from within.

The Alexandria Brown Bag was birthed in 2006 out of an express need from the association community in the DC and Northern Virginia area to have local get-togethers for association professionals. This region of the country is really the association hub of the United States – associations are the third largest employer in the area after the military and the government – and was saturated with people confronting similar challenges, asking similar questions, and eager for peer support.

Our industry is a special and singular space. You can be from so many different contexts, and find a place for yourself in associations. You can, much like I did, stumble across the association world by happenstance. Your experiences might be remarkably different from those of your peers, your insights might be individual, but you can carve a plot for yourself in this enormous and diverse industry.

This means that to create a structured group gathering for association professionals, we had to the multitude of interested and passionate people voice what they needed and wanted. After volunteering to spearhead a local meeting, and Cheryl Rothbart raising a virtual hand to join me, I witnessed the Alexandra Brown Bag become an instant success. I watched attendees literally lining up outside the elevator to our location, just to get the information we were handing out.

And in the process I discovered what our professional community was craving. People want to learn. They want answers to their questions. They want to improve; and they want to support the improvement of others.

So the Alexandria Brown Bag has come to pride itself on providing professional development. The networking opportunities of a group like this are obviously a huge benefit, but people really find value in our educational offerings. Once again, the content for professional development presentations has, over time, almost become crowdsourced. In the beginning, Cheryl and I would seek out best practices from across the industry, to request speakers from associations doing something outstanding. But as our outreach became more strategic, our influence became greater, and our network became wider, we began to receive applications from people to share their information and advice; we now haven’t had to do a call for speakers for at least five years.

The Alexandria Brown Bag, while a labour of love and the product of over a decade of work and development, was also an initiative waiting to materialize. People said what they needed, and in many ways then participated in creating just that. The success of our group is in the commitment of our members and speakers to sharing knowledge and to helping each other grow. When something really needs to happen, and when people really want it to, the process is exhilarating. We just need to listen.