On the Other Hand, I Never Forget a Face

On the Other Hand, I Never Forget a Face

B entara, the Malaysian restaurant on Orange Street, is dimly lit, wood-lined and absolutely packed. It’s PechaKucha night. At least 100 people have gathered to watch ten creative, mini-slideshow presentations about work, life and organizations in New Haven, in part thanks to the Elm City’s original social network: The Group With No Name, or TGWNN.

TGWNN attracts New Haven’s young and influential, but it also creates influence. And citizens. “Turning residents into citizens,” says Janna Wagner, one of the groups’ founders, “has been our motto from early on.” Born and raised in New Haven, Wagner moved back to the Elm City as a young adult to start the non-profit group All Our Kin. She worried there wouldn’t be the life, or the people, she imagined for herself. “Then I realized there were awesome people in this city; they just didn’t know each other.” So she got a few of her friends together for a happy hour in 2001. A dozen people attended, and TGWNN was born.

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Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven

It’s events like that—a happy hour, a picnic in the park, an information session on how city government works—that make TGWNN what it is. At first glance, the premise appears too simple to be effective, but then you discover a culture that didn’t exist before.

One April afternoon, six active TGWNN members sit around a table at green well Organic Tea & Coffee to explain the life and spirit of the group to me. In the late nineties and early 2000s, they say, there was little in the way of a cohesive, young professional community outside the stone walls of Yale. “TGWNN and the sort of space it created was definitely a factor for me staying here,” said TGWNN stalwart Laura Snow. “You knew that there were people, outside of the Yale bubble, engaging in the city.”

By leaving the identity of the group open in name, the organization could be flexible in form. “It became whatever those involved wanted it to be,” explains Snow. Any member can organize or publicize an event. “It’s special to be in a city where you can send an email and all sorts of people will show up.” True to form, it has no official hierarchy; no president, no positions.

The group now numbers more than 1,000 people of all ages and interests. There’s really only one requirement: You have to want to be here, in New Haven. “If you’re here and want to be engaged, you are so welcome,” Wagner says. “If you’re here because you have to be, and you’ve decided not to like it? Well, we probably can’t help you.”

TGWNN folks are doers. If there’s no book club, they create one. If there’s nothing to do on a Friday, they find a new theater group or music venue to support. It’s largely focused on the social health of the city for the sake of its young professional residents, with great benefit to small business, city government and non-profits. Janna rallies the troops but the best ideas, she says, come from other people—for example, TGWNN’s annual citywide scavenger hunt, Cluefest, which Snow organizes. It drew more than 300 people last year for a daylong exploration of the often undiscovered treasures, nooks and crannies of the city. There’s the Santacon bar crawl. And there’s the TGWNN’s holiday dance party, to which scores of city residents look forward and which raises about $3000 each year for charity.

Of course, there are the regular happy hours. TGWNN has turned these into a way to spread the word about New Haven’s organizations. Think of it as Happy Hour for Good. Teaming up with Anchor Bar in January, they asked for a $10 donation at the door in return for specials on drinks and food. The proceeds went to benefit Music Haven and the New Haven Free Public Library.

“Things like that pour out of the group,” TGWNNer Christine Kim says. “It’s organic. Some of it’s for us because we want fun, a social life—a community with family and friends. But we also love New Haven and want to make it better.”

The group has always been civic-minded. It’s engaged its members with city politics and connected young professionals with non-profits and small businesses. Some have gone to “government school” to learn about city hall; others have ridden along with police on patrols to get a sense of their jobs. They organized a workshop for members on how to get involved as board members for New Haven’s organizations—now many of them sit on boards. And you can thank TGWNNer Reggie Solomon for the New Haven Craigslist: Years ago, he contacted Craig himself and got enough people signed up to make it happen. And they lobbied for an Apple store long before Yale got involved.

“There are so many ways to make changes, and we’re sort of a clearinghouse for that. We put people together,” says Snow. “And the city is small enough that changes and connections are palpable.” As Daisy Abreu, deputy director of Town Green Special Services explains, “It’s all very fluid. You go from ‘Oh, wow, this is so great,’ straight to running Cluefest. Once you fall in with the crew, that’s it.” That said, it’s purely voluntary with no pressure. “No one’s going to harass you to write a check or show up,” says Abreu.

The group has matured over time—the founders started when they were in their early twenties. Now they’re thinking about the continued evolution of TGWNN and hope to see younger members come in to refresh the ranks. “TGWNN played a crucial role in New Haven’s evolution as a cool city,” Kim says. “Now we need excited, young people to come into the group and keep it strong.”

The Group With No Name
To join, email Janna Wagner at janna@allourkin.org 

Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.

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Uma Ramiah is a New Haven-based journalist using audio, print, and photography to tell stories about Connecticut. She holds a Masters in Religion and African Studies from Yale and spent a few years traveling and working in West and Central Africa before settling down in the Elm City.

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