As we approach Community Dining’s three year anniversary, I continue to refine its focus, which has become more about connecting individually with people than anything else. Perhaps paradoxically, I’ve begun to prefer private events where I personally invite each guest based on their mutual interests rather than events I make open to the public. On the surface, this narrow approach seemingly contradicts the purpose of community, but in reality, a community cannot exist without a strong foundation based upon a feeling of camaraderie resulting from common interests – and that foundation cannot develop without effective discrimination.
Having put so much energy into connecting with people, I’ve started to become much more sensitive to qualities that I didn’t fully notice the way I do now like curiosity, kindness, life experience, attentive listening, ambition, intelligence, creativity, emotional warmth, sociability, and sense of humor, all of which form the basis for how I am building Community Dining. With every guest I invite, I take all of these qualities into account with the larger purpose of creating a strong and diverse community.
This process takes time since it requires me getting to know people in a personal way, but without it, I wouldn’t be able to build a real community. I’ve come across many other organizations that loosely use the term community without expending any effort to learn about people and bring them together and wonder if this lack of effort contributes to increased feelings of isolation as some studies have shown. Susan Pinker’s The Village Effect, on the other hand, provides a litany of evidence supporting the profound effect that maintaining social bonds and consistent face-to-face contact with others has on our lives from an emotional and physical health standpoint and illustrates how these face-to-face connections can stimulate learning and build resilience. She also delves into more specific research on communal eating and how sharing food with others lights up our brains in ways that virtual experiences can’t replicate.
Building community also requires that members have both a deep-seated connection to the group and to each other. How can we call any group a community if members aren’t even aware of other members’ existence and don’t even know about each others’ lives? I know that I personally would feel much more connected to a group if people actually noticed I was gone. Groups like Meetup have seemingly revolutionized the way people meet since there is a group for just about every possible hobby where people can come together. And yet the extreme ease with which anyone can start a group might represent part of the problem. How often do we cancel plans or get cancelled on without even a second thought? Having innumerable social opportunities at our immediate disposal lowers the social cost of cancelling plans, which in turn devalues our experiences.
So I’ve been ruminating about how I can best create experiences that people truly value above and beyond anything else. I initially focused on the integrity of the food, making sure to be transparent about where it was being sourced and ensuring that I was only using farms with the highest quality practices. I then focused on the quality of the venue, always wanting to find places that I felt were interesting. And I sometimes added a topic and a speaker or panel of speakers that I thought would engage people. Nonetheless, I still always felt something was missing, but couldn’t figure out what it was until I began to host events at people’s homes. Throughout these experiences, I observed people making connections which felt more personal. Maybe it was the smaller size of the gathering combined with the intimacy of sharing food at someone’s home where each was personally invited based on their background and interests which the host took the time to learn about that made such a difference. So I started thinking: Why don’t I make more of an effort to foster these connections by collecting personal bios and photos of each guest and share with everyone without compromising on the the rest of the experience?
In fact, sharing this type of information represents a significant part of the Jeffersonian Dinner experience, which, thanks to a friend of mine explaining it to me, I am now making the main focus of Community Dining – and I will be hosting most of these dinners at my home. For those who are not already familiar with Jeffersonian dinners, they represent a revival of Thomas Jefferson’s dinners that he used to host at his home. Along with the host sending out the guest list including personal bios of each guest, the host also shares a few questions about a particular topic that is relevant to each guest based on their backgrounds and interests to help get people thinking. The number of guests is limited to 15 with no fewer than 8 in order to maintain a fruitful collective discussion. The host, acting as the discussion moderator, aims to make sure people don’t engage in side conversations with the person to next to them and don’t take out their cell phones. The goal is for each guest to contribute meaningfully to the discussion without a leader or any one person dominating. As for the food, while there are no specific rules, given that Thomas Jefferson had his own vegetable garden, the more the food comes from local farms and/or community gardens, the more the host would be adhering to the Jeffersonian Dinner tradition.
Jeffersonian Dinners capture the essence of what my vision for Community Dining has always been: Connecting worthwhile people through thoughtfully sourced shared meals that engage us in the means by which we fuel ourselves, stimulating substantive dialogue about important topics, and strengthening social bonds through face-to-face contact. Now I’ve simply discovered an effective vehicle to channel it.
If any of you would like to attend a dinner and have a particular topic that you would like to discuss, please let me know. Also, for those who have not done so, please feel free to share a photo and personal bio, which will help me figure out what topic(s) might be of interest to you as well as the other guests that you may want to meet. I know some of you may be uncomfortable writing about yourselves and sharing with others, but keep in mind that the more you share, the more others can learn about you and the more others may in turn share upon reading your bio, which will serve the larger purpose of strengthening the community.
For more information about Jeffersonian Dinners, see the links below: