After nearly two years largely in isolation or with modified meeting arrangements for many of us due to Covid, this past year has marked a time when we finally crept out to experience the world in this new reality of cautiously getting together again. We had to relearn faces partially obscured by masks, often with new hairstyles or even colors from what we remembered from perhaps as long as three years ago.
It was in this context that we held our first in-person National Convention in over three years. We are especially grateful for the grace afforded by Caesars/Bally’s in Las Vegas, as we held over our contract from 2020 without any adverse penalties. Amazingly, we had only two known cases of Covid postconvention, and our testing procedures caught one case before the attendee would have had the opportunity to transmit Covid to anyone else. Contrast this with our Leadership Summit a few months prior, when we had several positive cases of Covid in a much smaller group of people.
We’ve learned about how to reduce our risk, but still unable to totally eliminate it, which is where we generally stand today. Perhaps the risks are even greater with RSV and the flu adding to the caseloads in hospitals and decimating attendance numbers at schools.
And yet, we’re all finding our own levels of acceptable risk. Some are assuming full risk by going maskless and unvaccinated. Others choose to take all precautions, remaining masked, with KN95- or N95-level masks in addition to remaining up to date on vaccines.
I can attest that even with all the precautions taken with masking and vaccination, Covid infection is still a possibility, and yet I have continued to travel, including several opportunities to once again meet with JACL members and attend chapter events. While the risk due to Covid is very real, as we do get together again, there is another risk that often impacts us even more — that of truly coming together.
The pandemic lulled us into the comfort of interacting with one another while wearing our comfortable sweatpants, virtual zoom backgrounds and, as one lawyer famously found out, cat stickers, which superimposed a cat’s face over his own.
As we return to in-person events, many of us are relearning how to interact with one another.
I see it especially in younger children, forced into learning online when the real learning from being in school is how to interact with one another. Teachers talk of behavioral issues on the rise and difficulties for some children to socialize with one another. Some of these developmental delays will resolve themselves with the plasticity of child development, but some may persist and have everlasting repercussions from the emotional trauma of the pandemic.
But even for adults, the social distancing, or more appropriately called social isolation, can make it more challenging to get back out into the public, especially in group settings. For those who were already introverted, getting back out again is even more difficult.
At convention this year, I kept hearing over and over how wonderful it was for people to see each other again, and yet this was a smaller convention than normal.
It meant we could spend a little more time catching up with our closest friends, whom we hadn’t seen for years.
But what are our prospects for expanding who we engage with? When we say we are getting together again, with whom are we actually gathering? This is where I call on JACL chapters and members to start taking some risks.
It has become too easy in our social media bubbles to only associate with those we most closely share similar thoughts and identities. Masking probably makes this even more pronounced. Simply walking on the street, it’s harder to offer a smile to someone passing by.
I know the past few years have been especially polarizing, as people dug in with opposing political perspectives, but as the cult of personality for former President Donald Trump fades, there may also be opportunities to take a chance on rekindling some of those past relationships that fell to the wayside and perhaps can be repaired.
So, as we begin to gather, how can we expand our circle to include those who might benefit from being part of our JACL community? I heard the great news the other day that the Houston chapter held its first in-person meeting and elections since the pandemic and brought in over 30 new members, mostly youth and young adults.
The leadership of their new board should be applauded for the efforts they made to grow their membership so significantly, a lot of it through direct outreach on college campuses and through personal and community connections.
Even as we take the risks of coming together again as a part of this new reality of fluctuating Covid infection rates, compounded by the flu and other communicable diseases, let’s also take the added risk of reaching out to one another, expand our circle and grow the JACL so that we can bring more people together again.
P.S.: Just as I finished writing this, I received a notification of Covid exposure, likely from a very special event I attended that I would never have wanted to miss. Without taking some of these risks now, we won’t be able to live and live fully.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.