Preparing for the hard stuff

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy at the workplace. No, not THAT kind of intimacy, but rather emotional intimacy. Think about it: these are people that you spend a very large chunk of your life with. But have you ever been emotionally vulnerable in front of your colleagues? Have you ever talked about the bigger, life issues, beyond the day to day work of running a museum?

I first experienced one of those moments of intimacy back in 2012, when a coworker that had been at the museum for 20 years, died of cancer. Though she had been fighting cancer for years, her final decline was very rapid. At her funeral, probably half the crowd had some connection with DHV–whether they were volunteers, board members, donors or fellow coworkers. It was a very traditional Episcopal service, and I remember thinking how strange it felt to be participating in that ceremony with colleagues. We had never really discussed religion beyond the surface level. After all, that’s not something you do at work. And yet, there we were.

Just last month, we made the incredibly difficult decision to put down one of our beloved donkeys, Tuck.

He had retired from active wagon-pulling duties a few years ago due to arthritis, and we had been treating him with medication. But eventually the arthritis got to a point where the medication wasn’t doing much, and he was in a lot of pain. We were lucky enough to be able to plan his last days. We made sure key people knew that it was time to say goodbye and gave them the option of being notified of when the end would come. When that day came, staff gathered around him. He had many, many treats and nose scratches. Some staff left, but some of us stayed until the very end. There were many, many tears–that donkey had quite a hold on our hearts! But we cried together and shared kleenex and hugs. We went to lunch as a group and toasted Tuck–some of us with Moscow Mules (because why not?). As hard as that day was, it really couldn’t have been better.

This weekend, we’ll be sharing a very different type of intimacy. Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project arrives tomorrow. On Friday night, many of us will be spending the night at the Miller Log House, built as a pioneer home but given to Arch and Charlotte, (two of the people William Brown Miller enslaved), once Millermore was complete. After Friday night, we’ll know who snores and talks in their sleep. Everyone will know how weird my hair can look in the morning.

More importantly, we’re going to be having some really tough conversations about slavery, racism today, interpretation and the weight of history. We’re going to be faced with our biases–both those that we have as individuals and those we have as an institution. It will be an emotionally exhausting weekend.

This is the kind of thing that could be an absolute disaster for some teams. But I know we can handle it. We’ve been preparing for this weekend for months. There are the obvious things–diving into the primary sources, making sure all staff knows as much as possible about the 13 enslaved African Americans at Millermore, having tough, honest conversations about all this history–and preparing for the variations in visitor reactions to this history. But there are the little things we’ve been doing too–regular staff meetings for the entire staff. Cooking lunch on property. Making sure there are always cookies at meetings–and making sure our gluten-free staff can enjoy them too. In general, just caring for each other as people, not just colleagues.

It has been an incredibly difficult year for us, with lots of challenges and staff transitions. And yet, we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. I realized how far we had come as we worked through Tuck’s death together. I’m convinced that this weekend will transform DHV on many levels–from how we tell history to how we help each other through the next hard thing, whatever it might be.

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