Merida Allen held her “co-worker,” 14-month-old Jordan, and quietly shared with University of Dayton colleagues the unsettling news that COVID-19 likely took the life of her grandfather.
“Luckily we had 95 great years, but we don’t have a traditional way to mourn and celebrate his life. How do we love each other from afar?” asked Allen, one of three facilitators for the Dialogue Zone’s virtual conversation, “Caring for Ourselves and Others During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” on May 8.
Talking from the heart about trying to find their bearings in a world turned topsy turvy, more than a dozen faculty, staff and students participated in the group video chat from their homes via Zoom.
“I’m juggling my professional life with someone who cares nothing about my work life. As a working mom, my little boy has always fit into my world. Now my entire world has stopped, and this gives me hope he’ll know his mother in a new way,” said Allen, director of multi-ethnic education and student leadership.
Sky Lantz-Wagner shared that he “felt defeated” when he broke down and bought a coffee maker as a “stop-gap measure” during his stay-at-home stint. “My philosophical approach to coffee is that it should be drunk in cafes,” quipped the assistant academic director for UDayton Global.
Turning serious, he added, “I’m an extrovert and sheltering in place has been hard on my system. Zoom is a blessing, but not the way I prefer to connect with the world.”
Others shared how they missed the banter of colleagues “at the water cooler.” Another related how she drove to Cincinnati on Mother’s Day to stand on the driveway and wave to her parents, both in their mid-80s. Others are journaling, meditating, taking long walks, praying and reconnecting with their neighbors — at a distance. Nearly everyone expressed “Zoom fatigue.”
Located on the first floor of Roesch Library, the Dialogue Zone has hosted more than 50 conversations since it opened its doors last August as a place for civil discourse on challenging issues such as racism, politics and restorative justice, but this was its first foray into the virtual world.
“Our goal, at the end of any of these dialogues, is not to win over anyone,” said Jason Combs, coordinator of the Dialogue Zone as he introduced the 90-minute conversation. “It’s all about sharing and listening and understanding each other.”
In an interview earlier in the semester, he talked about why it’s so important to build capacity for dialogue across campus.
“A healthy community has healthy dialogue. I’m really proud of our university for creating this space for faculty, staff and students. It’s such a powerful expression of our Marianist charism,” said Combs, a lecturer in communication who served four years as course director for a required oral communications course that teaches students how to engage in dialogue over controversial issues.
When W. Kamau Bell, host and executive producer of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell,” traveled to campus for a Speaker Series talk in February, he delivered a similar message to students. “You’re learning the same skills you’ll need in the real world without being in the real world. This (college) is a petri dish,” he said. “It’s a great time to learn to listen to people who are different, to learn to be quiet, to take in other ideas, to talk to people different than yourself.
“Once you’re out of here,” he said, “it’s going to be hard to build that muscle.”
Some of the participants in the “Caring for Ourselves and Others” conversation readily agreed to gather again virtually after finding it easier to open up about their experiences and emotions than they first imagined. If this conversation is a harbinger of a new world, then dialogue may be a way to help each other through tumultuous times.
“I was holding on to this glimmer of hope that there would be a switch and we’d go back to normal again. We’re not going to be normal again,” said Shawna Collins, a Mac/PC specialist for UDit and a Red Cross disaster services volunteer.
“After every disaster, you never return to normal. Ever. We’re not coming out of this the way we were.”