In these divisive times, it can be hard to build relationships with people who have different viewpoints. Narratively contributors Justine Lee and Tria Chang teamed up to try to bridge the gap between those on different sides of the political spectrum. Their method: dinner conversations. Lee and Chang talked to Narratively about their own friendship, and what led to the creation of their project, Make America Dinner Again.
Narratively: How did you two get to know each other?
Justine Lee: The two of us met in college [at Carnegie Mellon University] as editors for our school’s Asian-American interests magazine, though our friendship really blossomed after we graduated and reunited in the Bay Area. As friends we bond over a shared love of reading, eating Cheez-Its, watching Terrace House, gathering friends and family, and discussing issues that are important to us. We’ve been in each other’s lives through big life moments –– new jobs, loss of jobs, breakups, weddings, cross-country moves.
Make America Dinner Again is our first big collaboration since working together on the magazine in college. It felt like our values and passions were aligning to create something bigger than our personal stories.
Narratively: What led you to come up with the idea for Make America Dinner Again? Was it something in your own lives, watching what was happening in the US as a whole or a combination of the two?
Tria Chang: The idea for Make America Dinner Again was born the day after the 2016 presidential election. I was reeling in shock, drowning in headlines, when Justine emailed me a lifeline. Its subject: I kind of want to host a dinner. Its body: with Trump voters and non-Trump voters, and have prompts or starting points that lead to something delightful and real. I replied immediately, YES. I realized that in the absence of being able to change the election’s results, what I most desired now was understanding. Justine and I both felt unsettled at our own gaps in knowledge — we didn’t know any Trump supporters in the Bay Area, where we were both living at the time. What followed was two months of meetings, research, and planning, with our first in-person dinner in January, shortly before the inauguration.
Narratively: What was it like getting MADA off the ground?
Lee: Exhilarating. Our first dinner was covered by NPR and that led to a surge of interest from folks across the country. It was clear from the emails and messages we received that people were looking for space to better understand each other and leave anonymity, judgment, and vitriol aside. We were onto something. One dinner led to the next and pretty soon we were on the phone working with hosts to start chapters in other cities. From the start, we were determined to make MADA accessible to as many people as possible –– we made our events free, relying on our own time and money and individual donations, and posted our host guide on our website so that anyone with the motivation could pick up and organize their own dinner.
We’ve had more interest from folks who want to participate in conversations than we do hosts to facilitate them. In response, we did more targeted outreach to recruit hosts and often encouraged participants to consider hosting. We also started an online discussion group where folks could engage in respectful dialogue (modeled after our dinners) while they waited for in-person gatherings. We were able to recruit moderators for our discussion group fairly easily and over the course of more than three years, the group has become its own highly engaged and tight-knit community of more than 800 people across political ideologies, backgrounds, and locations. It’s a place where folks can discuss issues and learn about new perspectives when they come to mind.
Narratively: If someone were to attend a MADA gathering what should they expect?
Chang: Before COVID-19, our small-group MADA gatherings were in-person. Guests could expect to be greeted with name tags, interactive posters, and question cards they could ask their fellow attendees. As hosts, it’s important to us that people feel welcome and at ease, especially when they are walking into a situation where they don’t know anyone, but know there will be people with whom they disagree. This can be unnerving even for the most socially adept. Food was helpful in further easing the tension, as well as clear guidelines and impartial facilitation.
While all our events are online now, we still aim for a welcoming atmosphere, clear guidelines, and questions that help participants get to know one another as people first, politics second.
Narratively: What was the process of moving MADA events online due to the coronavirus like?
Lee: Well, we had to learn Zoom! We also partnered with organizations like Living Room Conversations (an organization we plan to collaborate with more in the future, as our missions are closely aligned) as well as Narrative 4, an organization focused on facilitating story exchanges to build empathy. They both already had experience facilitating conversations online so we were excited to learn from them.
The pros: Folks from all parts of the country can meet. Geography and physical limitations are no longer a boundary. Getting to know each other as people first is core to the MADA experience. Via Zoom, we are able to get a glimpse of someone’s life by seeing what’s in their background, what they choose to show us. Is it a bookshelf with their favorite literature, plant life peeking in, a child, a cat? Seeing where someone lives is a chance to know them better.
The cons: Technical difficulties and unstable internet connections that cause lags. And, there will always be whimsy and magic about being together in person that no degree of Internet latency and fun features could replicate.
Narratively: From BLM to COVID-19 to the upcoming presidential election, it seems like the United States is as polarized as ever. Does this affect MADA events?
Chang: Current events affect MADA conversations in that some topics may become too heated or painful for participants to engage in. This is where facilitators are needed to pause the conversation or transition to new topics.
MADA was created because of polarization and the desire to find common ground, so the deepening of divisions that we’re seeing serves as a reminder of why we started. Sometimes, when it seems there’s nothing we have in common, we have to step back and search for something small. Maybe it’s the experience of being a parent that bonds two strangers, or an agreement on a local issue that may have two people on different sides of the aisle nodding at each other. Though opposing sides may never come together on certain issues, there still might be small spots where we can work together to improve our communities.
Narratively: What were some of the most emotional or moving moments that you witnessed, experienced or heard about at MADA dinners?
Lee: We’ve had dinners where folks have bonded over being parents, taking care of loved ones who are sick, or feeling ostracized or isolated for various reasons including being the only “one” of something in their town, school, or workplace. Watching people open up and then connect and build off each other’s stories is pretty incredible. It softens people and prepares them to listen more intently and with a more open mind and heart, when we move from story-sharing to discussion of the issues.
At one of our dinners, we invited our guests to share a meaningful item from their life, an adult “show and tell.” One of our participants, who was on the more quiet side, sang a beautiful hymn about peace and unity. We were all so moved by her voice, vulnerability, and the beauty of the meaning behind the song. It definitely made the space feel more sacred and special for the rest of the night.
Narratively: Were there any upsetting or difficult moments that you did not expect?
Lee: There have been tense moments at our dinners for sure. Guests have teared up, raised their voices, and have pounded the table and walked away to take a breather. There have been heated exchanges about topics we did not expect like labor unions and public education. Folks will begin talking over each other, spouting facts they’ve read. At this point, we’ll interject and remind folks we can’t fact check live. We ask them to pause and instead of relying on talking points, share a personal story that has shaped their view on the issue. That usually works. If the particular issue is just too heated, we’ll redirect the conversation.
We organized a three-part dinner series around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings. After the first of three dinners, one of our participants, who was a survivor of sexual assault, understandably did not feel comfortable attending the remaining dinners knowing the hearings might come up. We honored their decision and let the rest of the group know. Our dinners will sometimes happen during emotionally tense times in the world, and when that’s the case, we acknowledge the news or event, and check-in with our participants before we get started.
Narratively: How could someone get involved with MADA?
Lee: If folks want to join a discussion online, they can check out our Facebook discussion group, where people all across the political spectrum and country can engage in moderated prompts.
Narratively: What is coming up for Make America Dinner Again?
Chang: We are currently holding small group conversations over Zoom about the upcoming election using a guide we co-wrote with Living Room Conversations. We’re also starting to work with schools to help students develop habits of engaging in conversations that value differences and diversity.