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Civic Dinners: A Remedy for Political Divides

Many theories swirl through my Facebook Newsfeed about why this election has been so polarizing; we weren’t listening to the silent majority, the Clintons have been in politics too long, or we didn’t take Trump seriously until it was too late. But what I have not seen, and what I need most right now, is to understand how to talk to my neighbor, members of my family, and old college friends. I need strategies for engagement, ways to interact with people who, by some measures, seem to be living in a different America than I do.

I was sick in bed for the first ten days of Trump’s presidency, a tumultuous time by any measure. I needed to process the chaos with other people but was trapped at home. I tried using Facebook to have meaningful reach-across-the-aisle connections, even though I was well aware that social media can accelerate divisive interactions. It’s pretty easy to register knee-jerk reactions with handy punctuation marks and emojis.

My experiment in civic dialogue on Facebook in the days after the inauguration did not go well. One of my friends from university blocked me over what I perceived to be a cordial interaction. We had managed to maintain a connection for the last 10 years, but our differences over the new President ruptured our friendship on Facebook. I have since learned there are multitudes who have lost friendships in the past year as a direct result of politically charged social media conversations.

While it is practically a truism that social media, including Facebook, has contributed greatly to dialogue and social connectivity in many ways, I have decided to pull back from spending so much of my energy on it for now. Instead, I am trying to figure out  other ways to initiate meaningful connections with people outside my usual circles. Like many of us, I often want to engage with people who have different perspectives, but I don’t know how to meet real, live people outside of my immediate networks and begin those conversations.

Happily, I found these ingredients for bringing people together in an unexpected place – a Facebook posting for an organization in Georgia. Founder Jenn Graham believes that dinner parties have great networking potential, particularly if you come to the table with people you wouldn’t ordinarily invite or socialize with. Jenn launched Civic Dinners to help people put these dinners together, and she has created an online resource that helps people host, attend, and capture important themes from guided conversations.

The core concept is familiar: we know that breaking bread together can challenge perceived barriers and lead to empathy. But Jenn’s idea is innovative because it does more than reinforce this concept; it also provides an immediate way to act on the desire for this kind of connection. Her team has created a seamless, attractive web platform where you can sign up to host or attend an upcoming dinner party right there on the website. They also provide hosts with the tools to lead attendees through introductions and discussion.

The team of designers behind the scenes at Civic Dinners is trying to use technology to help build bridges and is currently building out their dream platform. They are particularly excited about their Diverse Table algorithm, which is the reverse of online dating. Rather than match you with like-minded people, the algorithm uses your demographics to suggest dinners that might be made more varied and interesting by your presence.

When Civic Dinners launched its pilot in Atlanta in 2015, 35 hosts signed up, and more than 300 enjoyed dinners and dialogue. What’s more, some measurable and impressive impacts surfaced. As a result of connections made at the dinner, participants went on to found two new nonprofits, pass three pieces of legislation, and run for five local political offices.

“We felt like we were a trampoline where people could play with ideas and then spring into civil leader roles,” Jenn said via telephone from her Atlanta office. Although the intent of the dinners is to connect people to each other, the organization deeply cares about making the good ideas that surface actionable. As a result, she explains, “We have become a tool for organizations and cities to reach deeper into neighborhoods to bring out the best thoughts and perspectives and to create more communication lines between people and government.”

Although still a very young and bootstrapped organization, their founder is pursuing the audacious goal of aligning 10,000 people in conversation. Each month this year the organization aims to roll out a new theme. In honor of Martin Luther King JR, this month’s conversation was The Beloved Community: Exploring Identity, Love, and Community. Upcoming themes include The State of Women: Exploring Rights, Power, and Femininity and In Gov We Trust: Exploring Civic Engagement or Lack There Of.

These kinds of discussions are, of course, more than timely. Given the current political climate, I think they are critical to the health of our democracy. That’s why I intend to help Jenn reach her goals by hosting Spokane’s first Civic Dinner. If you are interested in this unique intersection of food, conversation, and technology here in Spokane, please let me know. Civic Dinners is definitely the resource I’ve been looking for without knowing what to call it.  

Summer Hess: summer@community-building.org
Civic Dinners: http://www.civicdinners.com OR @CivicDinners

  1. Susan Hales
    Susan Hales02-06-2017

    Count me in, Summer.

    • Summer Hess
      Summer Hess02-06-2017

      Will do, Susan. You’re the first on my list!

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