Norton Fellow Shares Stories of Pandemic Through Film

“What does ‘community’ mean and how should we reconsider ‘the common good?’” asks the film Community in the Time of COVID-19, created by senior Cole Alleyne and shared with the Loomis community on Wednesday, February 24.

The film, a project of Cole’s Norton Fellowship, addresses the disparities of experiences in Greater Hartford during the COVID-19 pandemic through interviews with a variety of people living and working in the community. Cole presented the film and answered audience questions over Zoom on Wednesday evening.

The Norton Fellows program, a part of the Norton Family Center for the Common Good, is designed to offer a select group of Loomis students the opportunity to pursue their interests and become more engaged with their local communities over the summer break.

Cole, a resident of West Hartford, wanted to better understand what was happening in his own community during the pandemic, so he decided to ask local people about their experiences. Following the timeline from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak a year ago to present day, Cole’s story brings attention to the struggles of individuals as well as his entire community.

After a brief introduction, the film features its first interviewee, Loomis Chaffee junior Michael Zhou,  who lives in Beijing, China. Michael was not able to return home when COVID-19 starting spreading in the United States last spring and stayed with a local day student during the spring term. He described the struggles of being an international student on campus and the micro-aggressions he encountered because of negative press and misinformation shared online about the virus and its origins.

Cole’s film also shares the perspectives of several local officials and community leaders.

Patricia Baker, the founding chief executive officer of the Connecticut Health Foundation, spoke with Cole on camera. The foundation’s mission is to help improve the health status of people of color, with the hope of eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities in Connecticut. In the film, Ms. Baker describes how COVID-19 made the health disparities among people of color blatantly clear to the public, not just to individuals involved in her foundation.

To better understand the government’s efforts to support the people of Connecticut, especially those most affected by the pandemic, Cole asked Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn Wooden what his office was doing, how his and his staff members’ lives have changed, and what challenges confront people working for the government from home.

“You might think working from home means you have a better balance of work and life,” Wooden says.  “But a combination of a lack of separation between work and home, as well as the intensity of making sure things get done in the midst of COVID-19, in the midst of our country’s racial reckoning, [means] there is a lot to be done to address these issues, including the day-to-day normal work that I do investing our state’s $37 billion pension system.”

For more personal stories about COVID-19, Cole spoke with Harold Sparrow, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Hartford Area YMCA and a COVID-19 survivor. Mr. Sparrow talks in the film about the challenges COVID-19 posed for the mission of the YMCA, which is to build a community through programming for children and adults. The pandemic itself makes coming together in groups potentially fatal, he notes, and stay-home orders and other side effects of the pandemic also erode community. “Community is like the air. We may not be able to see it, but like fish in water, we are moving through it every day,” Mr. Sparrow says. “When I got sick, my community drastically changed for the worse. I lost connection with those people and the places that I move through every day.”

The racial reckoning that has gained momentum during the pandemic was the focus of Cole’s interview with Steve Austin, a sergeant in the Hartford Police Department. Officer Austin, who is Black, speaks about being a Black police officer not only during a pandemic, but also during the current racial climate in America, and explains all the work that police officers do that isn’t seen in the news and on social media, specifically referencing what happened to George Floyd in May of 2020. “I don’t think there is such thing as a Black officer. I am a Black man first,” Officer Austin says. “There aren’t Black doctors, there are just doctors who happen to be Black. So for me, when I see black men being killed or harmed by police officers on the news and online, I hope that people are being honest and asking themselves what they would do if they were in that situation, and then reflect on the answer.”

The final interview of the film features Sanford Cloud, chief executive officer of the Cloud Company and chairman of the University of Connecticut Health Center Board of Directors. Mr. Cloud praises state and local leaders on their decisions to mandate masks in public and continue requiring social distancing. He offers his thoughts on the future and reflects that the pandemic has made him think more about how his behavior and others’ behaviors will affect future generations.

The film ends with Cole sharing some of his own thoughts. “Everyone on the planet has their own COVID story,” he says. “In a sense this pandemic has created one unifying factor that joins all humans on the globe. The common good in 2020 is not extensive acts of service or outgoing acts of kindness, but rather the simple things, like wearing a mask, staying home to keep others safe, and being thoughtful about others before yourself.”

After the showing Cole answered questions from the audience and received a large round of applause and praise from his extended family, who tuned in to watch the film.

For more about the Norton Fellows and other center activities, connect to the Norton Family Center for the Common Good page of the Loomis Chaffee website.