Building Camaraderie in Quarantine  


In 2020, my family binge-watched the Netflix series, Stranger Things. I’ve often felt that life this past year was like venturing into the “Upside Down” — an alternate dimension (and pretty scary place) parallel to the real world. 2020 was, without a doubt, rough — a global pandemic, shocking increases in poverty worldwide, racial brutality and a long-overdue reckoning in the U.S., wildfires in California, and (almost as comic relief except for their devastating potential) murder hornets. But the year wasn’t all grim. At Miller Center, there were some wonderful opportunities, innovations, and shared moments.

In previous blogs, colleagues have written about extraordinary firsts in 2020. These include our pivot to build crisis management programs and help launch an emergency loan fund for our social enterprises; two virtual in-residences in consecutive months; our first all-in-house and web-based annual report; and our all-hands-on-deck strategic planning to achieve outsized impact in the next five years.

I’ve learned so much from these experiences and marvel at the creativity and commitment of our staff, mentors, executive fellows, students, and advisory board members. I often tell friends that working at Miller Center has made this past year more bearable and fulfilling. No matter how bleak the news, I’m heartened by our work accompanying social entrepreneurs who are literally changing the world. Their ingenuity, resilience, and sheer determination during the pandemic are nothing short of awe-inspiring.

But instead of focusing on the big, meaningful work of Miller Center and our social enterprises, this blog focuses on small, meaningful moments among our team.

On the day I write this blog, far-right extremists have entered the United States Capitol. There is so much to say on this topic but not here. I can tell you that our regularly scheduled, biweekly Social Justice Forum was turned into a safe space to share our feelings, frustrations, and fears. Staff members offered remarkable insights and support. Several participants articulated what I believe was unanimously felt — how lucky we are to be part of such an amazing team.

The Social Justice Forum was established in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Along with some complementary initiatives and a recent workshop with SCU’s Office for Multicultural Learning, our staff is working hard to confront our own unconscious biases, address systemic challenges at Miller Center, and grow as individuals and as an organization.

As in the “before times,” work is also about human connection. Working from home has given us unique opportunities to learn more about each other’s lives. Over Zoom, we’ve met Cassandra’s and Stacey’s kids, who pop up on screen to say hello. Jeri’s dogs and Pamela’s cat make regular appearances, and people have gotten used to seeing me get up from my desk to open the door for my restless Springer Spaniel… first to come in, and moments later, to head out again. And we celebrated (with just a twinge of envy) when KarenR moved her home office, and her family, to Kauai.

Lydia has kept our spirits up by organizing fabulous “Quarantinis” (rhymes with “martinis”) — late Thursday afternoon social hours that have included games, trivia contests, show and tell, and virtual scavenger hunts. Alex taught us to use video filters in Zoom to add berets, sunglasses, and reindeer antlers to our familiar faces. And Brigit gave the most bizarrely awesome gift at our holiday party — an enormous “garbage turtle” from Mozambique made of scrap metal, discarded cell phones, and random bits — that Peter stole from me in our traditional but first-virtual gift exchange.

To care for each other, we spend a little more time checking in at the beginning of Zoom meetings. I’ve spent roughly half my tenure at Miller Center working remotely under shelter-in-place. Since last March, I’ve had far fewer “water cooler” conversations, which I sorely miss. But I’ve also gotten to know many of my co-workers better through stories and glimpses of their lives beyond work — Marie’s adorable foster pup, Spencer’s culinary wizardry, Pamela’s purposefully lopsided bookshelves, Sharon’s fantastic costume collection, Yassine’s Moroccan artwork, Kevin’s cardboard sofa, and Ricardo’s lovingly restored 1967 Buick Lesabre (coincidentally parked half a block from my old house). There are too many to mention, but no less fabulous examples from Andy (Bingo champ), Ed (five pairs of Christmas socks), Eli, Greg, Isabel (awesome book recommendations!), Jeff, John, Keith, Lynne (great bad jokes), Rob, and Thao (best pumpkin drawer).

It’s still strange working remotely, and I really look forward to seeing these brilliant, funny, warm people in person again. We’re long overdue for after-work cocktails at The Hut!