Last Monday was our local genealogical society's board meeting. As president, I've wanted to change our usual agenda to allow for more strategic planning and team building, and less humdrum reporting of the past. So, for this first meeting of the new year, I tried something different. Before we launched into officer and committee reports, I invited everyone to participate in a getting-to-know-you discussion with one question:
How did you first get started researching your genealogy?
While we certainly didn't need any formal introductions—most of our board members have served in one capacity or another for at least a few years—it was surprising to see how little we knew about what drew each of us to the core of our organization's raison d'être. It was time to get social and share.
One board member volunteered to go first. She had a simple answer. She started researching her family's history mainly because of her high school friend—someone who just happened to also be sitting at the table for this very meeting.
That moved the discussion to this second respondent, who shared how she had started researching, amidst comments of "I didn't know you two were friends since high school!"
A third board member also credited this second person, and mentioned his most recent research gems, among them the DNA match discovery of a half sister to one of his close relatives, complete with travels for the two families to meet up, after all those years.
The discussion moved to a fourth board member, who had started her research journey years before, following her marriage. She shared challenges of researching recent immigrants, which comments led to a fifth board member sharing her story of how she had traced her own immigrant ancestors by traveling to their country of origin.
That board member, in turn, has been a friend of mine since we both worked together at the same agency following college graduation—and yet, she hadn't even known that I was involved in the genealogical society until after she made her decision to join the group. We ended up joining the board as total newbies right after becoming part of the society—she as secretary, and I as newsletter editor.
She, as it turned out, had just started her genealogy journey right after retiring from the work world, while another board member had been involved in genealogy research ever since she lost her dad at a young age.
The one thread tying most of the story together—as the details unfolded concerning each of our journeys—was the connections between each of us. Like a winding chain, one person knew another, who influenced another, who connected with the next person—something we hadn't realized before taking the time to ask how each of us got started.
Of course, the hope in this kind of simple, team-building exercise is to create space for each of us to get to know each other better—and thus, hopefully, begin working more closely and effectively together—but the exercise came with some unexpected benefits and surprises. While we soon moved on to the business items at hand, we emerged with a slightly different sense of who each of us are, individually, and possibly a clearer idea of what each of us brings to the table to benefit the greater whole of the board and the organization.
The one main take-away that surprised me, though, was the connection. I knew almost every board member's story, myself—mostly because I try to meet with each officer individually over coffee—but even I hadn't seen how important those unseen connections between us were. For someone who has spent nearly a lifetime sketching out the intricacies of pedigree charts, I was surprised I missed that. We may not be related to each other—no surprise cousin surname or DNA matches yet—but we are connected. Like Elizabeth Shown Mills' F.A.N. Club—of friends, associates, and neighbors—we are intertwined in each other's lives. We influence each other through our connections.
As board members of a local genealogical society, we need to be aware of that nearly-invisible dynamic. Bringing in new members to our fold may not be so much an effort of coaxing strangers to attend our meetings, or take our free-to-the-public workshops, as it may be that friends and friends-of-friends are influenced by the projects in which we take delight. People try new activities or go to new places more often because of someone they know, than simply because they saw a poster or heard a public service announcement. It's the interpersonal connection—no matter how slight—which draws them in.