A much-needed list of affirmations started showing up on my Twitter feed Friday: “It’s ok to feel angry,” it read. “It’s ok to feel grateful. It’s ok to feel down.”
I’ve been inside my house for so long that the fact that this message came from the local district of my state’s department of transportation didn’t feel notably weird. In fact, if you’ve followed the VDOT Northern VA account on Twitter for the past few weeks, or even for the past year, you’ll know it doesn’t exactly align with what you might expect from a municipal communications outlet. Yes, this is the place to go to learn about lane closures on eastbound I-66 in advance. But thanks to Ellen Kamilakis, a senior public affairs officer in the department’s Northern Virginia district, it’s also the place to stock up on workplace humor, cat GIFs, and the odd shoutout to ’70s country rock.
Kamilakis agreed to answer a few questions via email about her stewardship of an unexpected civic treasure.
Could you give me a quick biographical sketch? How long have you run the @vadotnova account?
I’ll hit my five-year mark with VDOT in November. I began running @vadotnova very soon after I started—right in time for #Snowzilla. Before that, I worked for Fairfax County (police, emergency management, and transportation) for 12 years. I grew up in Spotsylvania County (I had a class with Danny McBride—I think it was study hall?) and moved to Northern Virginia to attend George Mason University. I live in Fairfax County. I’m also a member of the National Capital Region Incident Management Team (NCR IMT) and recently deployed to support a regional health district in the Commonwealth.
What’s your operating philosophy for the account?
My philosophy has always been to put a human face to the agency. To be friendly, helpful, funny, and relatable. Think less of “VDOT plows the roads” and more of, “Rickey, who is currently plowing your road, likes to listen to Luther Vandross and has worked for VDOT for 27 years.”
How often do you tend to tweet on it?
I tweet every day. Some days more often than others, but definitely every day.
What are some of your most popular tweets in the past couple weeks? Last year, I really loved “Careless Driver,” btw.
It depends on how you define popular. If you mean most likes, it would be Soothing Dog, Cat Obstacle Course, and Handwashing Chameleon, but It’s OK will be up there too. If you mean engagement rate, it would be Zoom Pie Chart, Charlie the Traffic Engineer, and Bark-O-Lounger. But my personal choice would be when I announced my deployment because our followers made me feel so loved and appreciated! Glad you liked Careless Driver—it was fun to create!
It sounds weird to type this, but the account has felt really…nurturing during the coronavirus crisis. You keep reminding people we’re all in this together and that people are there for them. These aren’t messages people often expect from their department of transportation! How did you decide to take this tack?
We’ve always had a very empathetic account. I guess it started down the nurturing path when I realized that there were things I needed to hear for myself. I come from emergency management; I am on an IMT; I’m fortunate that I still have a job—and even a position that is able to telework; I am healthy; my Mom’s retirement community was one of the first to proactively lock down; I have a great support structure. In theory, I am more prepared than most to endure and overcome this crisis, and even I am scared and anxious. I can only imagine what others are feeling and experiencing. In our Twitter community, people are facing all of those issues. So I believe that right now our Twitter community needs to be supported and soothed more than be, say, educated about road safety.
Can you please tell me more about Morning MeeMaw?
MeeMaw is an alter-ego/nickname of mine because as I get older, I fully embrace early bedtimes, not going out on the town, and silently frown on unruly children in restaurants. Morning MeeMaw Nag is a way for me to share all of those messages that evoke groans of “thanks, Mom” while acknowledging was it is—a “good for you” nag coming from a place of love.
Do you have any history with the Firefall song?
I’m Gen X so I am all about the angst and feelings. I’ve always loved that song. It’s on a playlist I made alongside the Verve, the Hollies, Sade, and 10cc. Of course alongside another playlist with Big Daddy Kane, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Chuck Brown, and Fleetwood Mac.
Have you had any feedback from the VDOT brass about this account?
I believe the agency truly values engagement with residents of the Commonwealth. So where not everyone is on “The Twitters” or using dog gifs in their personal life, I feel supported and appreciated in my approach. The account has won multiple awards the past few years, so that’s wonderful too.
Do you recommend any other mold-breaking government accounts?
I would be remiss if I didn’t immediately mention @jlisle from his @ddotdc days. I remember seeing it when I was running @ffxconnector and watching him literally strong-arm open the door for government accounts to have a more human tone. We met in person years ago, almost accidentally, and I am happy to say that we still interact, even if he’s “inquiring” about loop detectors or when I’m 10 feet away in the same public meeting. But currently, @pwcdanica, hands down. Her account is filled with boundless energy, information, and optimism.
Are you working from home now? What helps you get through the day?
I just finished my third week of teleworking. As an extrovert, it has been challenging, but I am so thankful to be able to do my part to flatten the curve. Being home with my cats, Charlie and Lucy (who have their own story), has been fantastic, but the best part of my day is when I get a daily FaceTime from my Mom in her senior community. She’s my favorite person in the whole wide world.
Would you possibly have the time to take this quiz and, once you get your answers, tell me which character from The Wire universe you are? https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/characters/
Eighty percent match to Buffy Summers (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).