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Meeting Conflict with Curiosity: An Interview with The Dinner Party Labs

Cambriae Lee, Lennon Flowers|March 14, 2023

We sat down with the Co-founder & Executive Director of The Dinner Party Labs , Lennon Flowers, to talk about the organization's program, The People's Supper. The People’s Supper equips communities with the tools they need to build trust across lines of difference and to overcome sources of rupture and long-simmering conflicts.

One of the five principles of constructive dialogue is to "Share your story and invite others to do the same." Can you tell us the story of The People's Supper?

The People's Supper began in earnest about a week after the 2016 election as a collaboration between The Dinner Party and the Faith Matters Network. I teamed up with my friend, Jen, founder of FMN, and another friend of ours to start what we thought would be a 100-day experiment: We wanted to prove that a group of thoughtful people who differ from one another – politically, racially, religiously, and generationally – could sit down over a shared meal, and understand the real stories that have shaped who we are.

Early on, much of our work was based on social contact theory and the notion that our stories can do what arguments can't. We figured it was easy to hold a prejudiced view about a group of people if you'd never met someone with those identities. So we wanted to break people out of their filter bubbles and undermine the negative stereotypes and assumptions we make of one another.

We found a lot of people were really exhausted by the toxic waste dumps that many of our Facebook feeds had become, so we were able to tap into a real hunger for more meaningful connection and conversation. We went on to power more than 1,000 suppers in that first year.

Our work has evolved considerably since then. We now focus on creating systems and processes that lead to trust-building within particular communities, largely through personal story-sharing and chances to normalize hard conversations.

You work with communities facing polarization who wish to cultivate deeper bonding & bridging ties. What's one approach you use to help bring people together across differences?

Our approach looks different depending on the environment. We tend to work with communities experiencing an acute pain point — whether around an issue threatening to divide them or a moment of harm that's challenging to move through.

We operate on the principle that not everyone belongs at every table, but there is a table for everyone. We have to let go of the notion that bridging always means we're all in the same room together. In responding to histories of racial injustice, for example, we often convene a combination of bridging and affinity suppers — typically anywhere from five to seven gatherings altogether, with the chance to go deeper over time. Taking a seat at any of those tables requires a baseline recognition that racism is real. The truth is, not everyone is ready to bridge or should be asked to do so. But we also work with folks to create other low-barrier entry points — community potlucks, storytelling events, performances, and the like — that invite any and all to the table.

We're working with the NYC Mayor's Office of the Prevention of Hate Crimes on a city-wide initiative to combat a rise in hate and mistrust among people across ideological and identity differences. We're working with dozens of city agencies to host large- and small-scale suppers with their constituents, intending to narrow the gap between city leaders and the stories of the people they're serving.

In other cases, we train local leaders to accompany community members and organizations through moments of rupture. Together, we look at how to analyze the "problems beneath the problem" and how to help communities uncover the strengths and value-sets they can use to address it: Where is power held? What are barriers to engagement? How has our community tried to resolve the issue before? What values resonate, and with which groups of people? From there, we help each leader translate those insights into a facilitated process to help groups move through difficult conversations, whether between two people or across an entire congregation or community.

In each instance, we invest intentionally in the hard conversations that reveal us as complex and caring human beings out of a belief that healing is a collective enterprise.

Can you recall a particular moment when you witnessed your programs making an impact?

In 2018, we teamed up with the Mayor's Office of Erie, PA, after the city was named "the worst place in the country for African Americans to live." Over the course of six months, we brought together a mix of 80 racially and ethnically diverse civic leaders for a seven-part series of racial healing suppers, breaking them out into a combination of affinity suppers and bridging suppers.

At one of the tables during the white affinity supper, we asked, "What's an issue related to race that you want to understand better but feel uncomfortable bringing up?" A business owner at one of the tables said, "You know, I just don't understand why Black people in this city can't get ahead. I lifted myself up by my bootstraps; why can't they?" That might feel true if you tell only the story of your hard work, not of the loan you received to start your business, the house you inherited and sold, or the simple fact that your intelligence was always assumed. The Mayor's Office had come to us thinking they had an optics problem, and they realized they had a racism problem.

At the end of the series, participants put forward ideas on how to make Erie more equitable. It culminated in projects that include a new workforce development initiative, which provides capital funding and new job training for minority-owned businesses, and a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund to ensure all Erie students have access to higher education.

Do you see the problem of polarization going away any time soon?

When you consider some of the causes of polarization — a fragmented media landscape reinforcing echo chambers; social media engines capitalizing on outrage and the "conflict entrepreneurs" who exploit them; a political system weakened by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the elevation of extreme voices; the decline of shared spaces that once fostered casual encounters and stronger social cohesion — it's easy to despair. Those drivers aren't poised to go away any time soon. And we've got an election coming up. Awesome.

But I'm also hopeful. There's plenty of evidence that an exhausted majority is looking for a different way forward. There's a massive effort underway to create a healthier public square, both online and off. And I think we're beginning to understand that the idea that we can either "confront or avoid" or "speak up or stay silent" is a false dichotomy: There's a third way. We can begin meeting conflict with curiosity; we can ask questions rather than leap to assumptions and name harm by calling people in, not out.

Vulnerability and self-expression are increasingly in vogue, thanks to a growing number of spaces and avenues that invite personal story-sharing. On the one hand, that can easily veer toward narcissism and a prizing of "me" over "we." But it also offers avenues to lift up both our visible and invisible identities and helps to complicate the narratives we carry about one another.

We've found that when people arrive expecting sameness and find difference, they tend to get judgmental — engaging in grief wars or writing each other off. On the other hand, when they arrive expecting difference, they get curious, marveling at the differences in the roads walked and simultaneously seeing sources of commonality in the places they'd least expect it.

We're going to disagree, have conflict, and experience rupture — it's part of being human. But we can develop better muscles and tools for dealing with it, and I think we're really seeing the appetite for that.

Why the name, The People's Supper?

We wanted something that felt warm and friendly and offered a low barrier to entry. There's a familiarity to sharing a meal together, whoever you are, and wherever you come from. On a practical level, it makes for a better invitation: You're more likely to show up to a meal than you are to a group that meets around a conference room table. And it creates a natural rhythm to conversation: When you need a moment to pause and consider what you want to say, or to reflect on something you've just heard, it helps to be able to pick up a fork.

How can people engage with your organization?

We have a bunch of resources available for download on our website for anyone looking to have a healthier conversation across differences. For those needing additional assistance, we offer a combination of one-time trainings and workshops, coaching calls, and, in rarer cases, in-depth partnerships. To get in touch, send us an email at [email protected]


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