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Kizuna 2020: Nikkei Kindness and Solidarity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JANM Volunteers in the Time of Covid

Photo by Richard Watanabe.

40 staff and 200 volunteers are the human resource numbers for the Japanese American National Museum. With volunteers outnumbering staff 5:1, the hallways and the Takei Volunteer Center became much quieter places in early March when, for health safety reasons, we had to ask they no longer come into the Museum until further notice.

With half of our volunteers having been part of the JANM forces for 10 or more years, there are definite bonds that have formed between staff and volunteers. Daily questions were: Is everybody okay? Is everyone safe?

Volunteers consistently voiced concerns about staff and asked if staff members were working and from where. And volunteers were concerned about one another. A topic of conversation amongst staff members centered around worry about our volunteers because their average age is 69, placing them smack dab within the vulnerable population. We worried about not only virus but about social isolation. We worried about too many trips to Costco. We worried about volunteers being able to get groceries.

The big question that arose: how do we allay the fear we had for one another’s physical and mental health? Fears of both staff and volunteers.

Staff members needed to find a vehicle to share news they received about volunteers. JANM had started using the Slack collaboration platform, and so we created a special channel, “Volunteers During Safer at Home,” where we posted news, happy and not-so-happy, about volunteers. We shared phone conversations and emails from and about volunteers. Requests for calls to those needing social contact were posted.

Volunteers shared their experiences of learning how to shop online through Instacart, what items they are currently baking at home, shared photos with each other, and their favorite discussion as they participate in JANM from Home virtual programming.

JANM volunteers were self-isolating in many places, including in Tokyo during cherry blossom season. Photo by Tami Hirai.

April 2020 socially distanced visit to volunteer Bill Shishima. Photo by Clement Hanami.

Clement Hanami, Vice President of Exhibitions and Art Director, resides in Monterey Park nearby a number of JANM volunteers. He made driveway, socially distanced visits and posted photos to Slack. We realized that seeing these volunteers made us feel better so Clement also initiated a Zoom call with a few volunteers and staff.

We share staff news with volunteers through GoogleGroups. Through a series of weekly reflection questions posed by our Education Department staff, volunteers read responses from other volunteers. And the volunteer Sunshine Committee made check in calls to volunteers who did not have email.

Volunteers consistently voiced that they missed the comradery of spending time with one another. They are, after all, a community of friends who volunteered together each week and would talk story over coffee. Missed weekly conversations about group visits in the galleries, upcoming programs, planning potluck luncheons, and where to go eat lunch in Little Tokyo.

We miss the joyful conversation of volunteers! Here are the Thursday volunteers at a pre-Covid birthday potluck luncheon. Photo by Pat Ishida.

The Volunteer Leadership Council (VLC) was asked to consider several options where volunteers might interact directly and they agreed to start Zoom meetings for each day’s group of volunteers. The VLC provided assistance to anyone who needed help getting onto Zoom. Recently, their first meeting was with the Tuesday cohort and 20 volunteers joined in for a 90 minute session! We know that this will be the mode of conversation for the foreseeable future and are glad that we can now see faces and interact in real time!

Photo by Grace Yamamura.

We so look forward to when our volunteers can be back at JANM. The Museum will be a much better place with their presence.


© 2020 Julia Murakami

covid-19 janm Japanese American National Museum Kizuna 2020 volunteers

About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds. In 2011, we invited our global Nikkei community to contribute to a special series about how Nikkei communities reacted to and supported Japan following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Now, we would like to bring together stories about how Nikkei families and communities are being impacted by, and responding and adjusting to this world crisis.

If you would like to participate, please see our submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world. We hope that these stories will help to connect us, creating a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

* * * * *

Although many events around the world have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have noticed that many new online only events are being organized. Since they are online, anyone can participate from anywhere in the world. If your Nikkei organization is planning a virtual event, please post it on Discover Nikkei’s Events section! We will also share the events via Twitter @discovernikkei. Hopefully, it will help to connect us in new ways, even as we are all isolated in our homes.