In the midst of the COVID-19 “new normal,” the popular Fireside Chat series has sparked many engaging discussions. Hillary Freeman, Jennifer Paull, Tanja Srebotnjak, Alegria Barclay, and Aron Walker took the lead a few months ago to provide the Nueva community with a relaxed forum to discuss some timely topics.
The Fireside Chat series resulted from an engaging Extended Leadership Team discussion at the very beginning of the shelter-in-place-directives.
“Stephen (Dunn) talked to me about doing something that would get the community engaged with each other, in order to maintain and build the Nueva community culture,” explained Dean of Student Life Hillary Freeman. “I suggested a speaker series and volunteered to lead it. Jen and Tanja volunteered as well. We thought that during the pandemic, while everyone was at home Zooming, the time was right to engage with people who might otherwise not be as available. I wanted the series to have a current, somewhat academic, and definitely personal vibe.”
The team planned three events, one of which (with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of The Undocumented Americans) has been postponed until the fall. The other two featured Peter Drekmeier, an environmental activist from the Tuolumne River Trust who spoke about his experience with spearheading important water policy initiatives at the local and state levels; and a panel of COVID-19 frontliners—an emergency room physician, a Nueva alum who is a nurse, and a local food bank volunteer.
Equity and Social Justice Director Alegria Barclay also hosted an Asian Heritage Month panel.
“Building on the success of the first roundtable that Tanja and I hosted on what a socially and environmentally sound path forward after the pandemic would look like, I wanted to explore another timely issue,” Alegria noted. “This was the topic of Asian-American identity and history within the context of anti-Asian discrimination. Our panelists sought to provide a framework to understand the current moment including looking at the history of anti-Asian discrimination, the experiences of first- and second-generation Asian-Americans, the impact of Asian-American artists, and the legacy of Asian-American activism.”
The first Fireside Chat guest on May 13 was former Palo Alto mayor Peter Drekmeier, who discussed the fraught and complex issue of water management and conservation in California.
“Peter has the unique perspective of someone who has successfully challenged and changed public policies as an activist, elected official, and nonprofit founder,” said Director of Environmental Citizenship Tanja Srebotnjak. “That’s something that our students can learn from and be inspired by as they seek solutions to environmental and social problems.”
Peter is no stranger to the Nueva community—he worked with several Nueva students several years ago regarding the proposed diversion of the Tuolumne River. Those students won a national award for their participation, activism, and actions. They presented their findings to the San Francisco Public Utility Commission during a hearing and assisted in stopping the diversion of the river.
“I also really enjoyed Peter's talk about the Tuolumne watershed,” added Assistant Director of Environmental Citizenship/Science Teacher Aron Walker. “It’s so important to always be asking questions such as, ‘Where does my water come from?’ ‘What systems make possible my everyday experiences?’ and ‘What can I do to help?’ Peter addressed all of these, and I can totally see a course module exploring these issues in greater depth.”
The next Fireside Chat on June 3 focused on post-COVID-19 recovery, and what those on the frontlines are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. Nueva alum Jillian Balkenhol ’10 from Yale New Haven Health spoke about her long days working as a nurse in a busy East Coast hospital. Emergency room physician Taylor Stayton, M.D., from Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, weighed in about how personal protective equipment (PPE) is used, the emotional intensity evoked by COVID-19 and its toll on patients and medical staff, and how to best protect oneself from COVID-19 when participating in protests. Amanda Seals, a food-bank volunteer with Samaritan House, talked about how COVID-19 has affected San Mateo County families at the local level.
During the COVID-19 panel, Jen Paull interviewed Amanda, Taylor, and Jillian. She asked them to share their experiences and insight about the current pandemic.
“I was deeply impressed by the openness and vulnerability of our three panelists,” Jen said. “They were so candid about their fears, the destabilizing sense of constant change, and the impact of a kind gesture. After Amanda’s story of how painful it was to run out of some essential food supplies that families in San Mateo needed, I’ll never look at a jar of peanut butter in the same way.
“Each of the panelists emphasized how we all need to stay compassionate, to consider the loss and pain that so many people in our communities feel,” she added. “The immediacy of these stories helped to bring home the importance of doing everything we can to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe. Hearing them was so much more powerful than reading another general headline. Living in quarantine shows the necessity of connection through stories. Through all of these talks, the personal stories made the greatest impressions. It’s wonderful to see how several groups, such as the student-led Roundtable and Alegria’s social justice initiatives, have brought more of these conversations forward. These are the kinds of direct stories of human experience that the Humanities Center will continue to showcase in years ahead.”
Hillary said the Fireside Chat series will continue in the fall.
“They build community,” she noted. “Our parents, students, faculty, and staff participate. Topics can be very timely because there’s no travel requirement, and we might be able to invite guests who we would otherwise not be able to afford. There has been genuine interest—our students and parents have even asked for the videos!”