Random Acts of Coffee is back!

The simple act of sharing conversation and a cup of joe is bringing Smithsonian staff together from across the Institution and around the world.

The Smithsonian Community Committee is now taking registrations for the next round of the Random Acts of Coffee program. This popular initiative gives staff, volunteers, interns, contractors, and fellows a chance to meet and connect with other members of the Smithsonian community and learn about how they contribute to make the Smithsonian one of the best places to work and visit. Torch recently spoke with Holly WIlliamson, a public affairs specialist at the Air and Space Museum, to learn more about Random Acts of Coffee and the Smithsonian Community Committee.

Cup of coffee latte and coffee beans in burlap sack on old wooden background

What is “Random Acts of Coffee”? It sounds like a Seinfeld episode.

HW: The concept was originally developed (as far as we know) by a company called Hanover Research.  It was introduced at NASM at the suggestion of an employee. The museum has multiple work locations, and this was a way for staff to feel connected and meet new faces.  A session was also run during the summer of 2019 to connect the museum’s interns with staff in other departments. That was so popular with the intern corps that a second session was added.

The Smithsonian-wide version began in May 2020 and has been offered quarterly since then. 

Participants sign up online.  Once registration closes, the registrants are divided into groups of four. We keep the assignments as random as possible but do try to ensure that two people from the same unit are not placed in the same group. We also factor in geographic location, time zones and accessibility, and try to accommodate those requesting a Spanish-language group when possible. Once the groups have been established, an introductory email message is sent to the participants. After that, it’s up to the group to find a time to chat.

How many people have participated?

Thus far, we have had more than 2,000 registrations.   The actual number of participants may be lower, as some people have registered for multiple sessions. The program is open to everyone in the Smithsonian community – staff, volunteers, contractors, interns, and fellows.

Will there be an opportunity for in-person meetings?

That is our intent.  During the pandemic lockdown, all meetings were virtual, of course. A recent session offered the option for in-person meetings.  We expect that over time, this may continue to be a hybrid format so that staff who are not based in D.C. can still connect with others.  For example, one session  had participants in six different time zones, from Hawaii to the United Kingdom.

What kind of reaction have you had?

We issued a survey to the first session’s participants to gauge their satisfaction. Here are some highlights:

  • 98% rated the program good or excellent
    • Almost everyone noted that the program offered the chance to meet new people and/or those with different responsibilities.
    • 54% said that their groups had planned to continue meeting (at least one of the May, 2020 groups still meet regularly)
    • 64% indicated that

Some of the comments from the survey:

  • The random group was great! Lots of different experiences, backgrounds, job types.
  • I think we were all pleasantly surprised by how well the conversation flowed.  The way our group was assigned was very helpful (we are all in the same, non-Eastern time zone).
  • The experience definitely helped me feel connected to the broader SI community and helped me grow my awareness of SI activities. It’s an excellent program to build One Smithsonian.
  • I think being off site in NY, and my other colleague being in Boston, it was nice to have this experience and meet with others throughout the Smithsonian. While I do get to go down to DC often, I don’t think my colleague at SAO has that chance, so teleconference would work best for those off-campus. (Multiple respondents had similar comments) 

What is the Smithsonian Community Committee?

The Smithsonian Community Committee (SCC) was founded in 1994 to foster a sense of community leading up to the Institution’s 150th anniversary celebration in 1996. Due to the overwhelming popularity of its programming, the SCC became a permanent part of the Institution in 1997. 

The Committee is governed by a set of bylaws and exists to: 

• Generate enthusiasm for and pride in being part of the Institution

• Recognize members of the Smithsonian family and acknowledge their contributions

• Increase staff awareness and understanding of the Institution, and

• Promote a sense of community among staff of the museums, research centers, and offices.

Pre-COVID-19 Community Committee activities included staff picnics in DC and New York; SHAPE Committee-sponsored walks, meditation/yoga/Zumba classes, and presentations on healthy eating and exercise; behind-the-scenes tours and presentations; staff art and photography exhibitions; staff movie nights; the Unsung Heroes award program; a spelling bee; and programs offered by the Smithsonian Alumni committee.

Can anyone join?

The Committee is comprised of approximately 20 members, who represent a wide variety of the Smithsonian’s units, including staff, volunteers, and alumni, who meet once a month.  Several programs, such as the SHAPE and picnic committees have also relied on additional volunteers to make the programs successful. Once we resume these types of programs, we will be looking for others to help out. 

How has the pandemic affected the committee’s work?

Due to the virus and our current protocols for staff, most of these activities are not an option. The SCC met early on to develop some new, distanced-based opportunities.  These have included Random Acts of Coffee, a series of quizzes, virtual SI Live presentations, and the Smithsonian Snack Attack, which provided a surprise meal and/or

snacks to the OPS and OFMR staff who were required to work on site.  We were also able to proceed with the staff photo show.

Learn more: The Committee thanks everyone in the Smithsonian community for their interest and participation in the activities we facilitate. Website: https://sinet.sharepoint.com/sites/SI-Collab/SCC/default.aspx

Have you had a cup of coffee with your colleagues? We’d love to hear about it! Share your story in the comments!

Posted: 2 June 2022
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni is primarily responsible for "other duties as assigned" in the Office of Communications and External Affairs. She has been with the Smithsonian since 2006 and plans to be interred in the Smithson crypt.