I organized a dinner recently for 50 people from across the aisle to engage in civil discourse at the Heurich House Museum. This dinner was the culmination of the many small dinners I’d been hosting in my home since the 2016 election that I had been calling Blueberries & Cherries.
In past dinners, the conversation had usually been a political free-for-all. I adjusted the format over time based on things I learned from each dinner and applied them to this larger dinner. For example, I centered the conversation this time on a single issue: immigration. And I used art, rather than politics, as the frame for the conversation. I’d curated an art show displayed in the house called “A (GOOD) AMERICAN” that included seven artists exploring what it means to be an immigrant in America and what it means to be a good American. Dinner guests had the opportunity to experience the art first before we sat down to eat a great dinner hosted by American University’s School of Public Affairs. Artists from the exhibit sat at each table.
We kicked off dinner a little differently this time by recording a podcastepisode of Sanity Pod with Audrey Scagnelli, who’d been introduced to me by my friend Susannah who is the president of Running Start, a bi-partisan organization dedicated to teaching girls and young women how to run for office. Audrey is a moderate Republican who’d become disillusioned by the insanity of politics over the last couple years. She dropped out of working in politics and started a podcast that features people working in different ways to restore sanity to politics and to restore civil discourse in our country.
After recording the podcast, I instructed guests to not talk about politics over the first course. I hoped everyone would see each other first as vulnerable human beings and less as their political identities. To help along the process of humanizing, I’d inserted provocative, personal questions into little red envelopes placed at each seat. These were the same kinds of envelopes my grandmother used to fill with a little money and give to me and my cousins every year for the lunar new year. I’d gotten the idea from exhibition artist Antonius Bui, who’d used the same envelopes in a performance during the exhibition’s opening night about the citizen naturalization process.
After the first course, composer Alejandro Castaño played a piano piece he’d composed in honor of an undocumented friend who’d been a promising musician before he died in jail where he was being held for stealing a CD. After the initial arrest, he’d been transferred to a faraway facility and his mother did not know where he’d been taken until she was informed he’d died.
I don’t know if these dinners will lead to meaningful change in our political discourse. It will take a lot of time and effort to build the kinds of relationships that can lead to policies that benefit all Americans. Unfortunately, most people want quick fixes. Transformation will also take a larger effort than me hosting one dinner at a time. I hope we can find a way to expand the opportunities for making connections between people who might not normally meet and for building relationships between people. Art isn’t the solution to all the problems, but art can be a tool for making the connections and for initiating the conversations that need to happen if we are to progress.
Listen to the podcast here.