Breaking Bread and Bridging Differences
Three projects tackle partisanship and attempt to reclaim civility in a divided America
In 2010, Joan Blades, the founder of MoveOn.org, felt a growing disconnect between the left and the right.
Blades, a liberal Democrat living in Berkeley, California, watched Tea Party protests rip through the country in the year following Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2005, she had started discussing climate change with leadership on the right, hoping to find places of common ground, but the conversations were getting harder. Meanwhile, in her own liberal circles, Blades’ lefty peers often referred to conservatives as “those people,” a phrase Blades felt denoted a rift that was harmful to our democracy. Believing liberals and conservatives needed casual spaces for respectful dialogue, Blades decided to create those spaces herself. She co-founded an organization called Living Room Conversations with Amanda Roman to generate dialogue between Americans on either side of the aisle.
Living Room Conversations provided instructions for hosting these dialogues. To hold a Living Room Conversation, two hosts—one liberal, one conservative—invite two friends each to a home for a conversation about a single topic, ranging from criminal justice to free speech to ranked choice voting. The conversations gained popularity over the years, but after the November 2016 election, interest shot up. If Blades felt Americans were divided in 2010, by 2017, it could seem like Democrats and Republicans were living on separate planets.
Post election, Living Room Conversations is not alone. Several similarly inclined platforms have emerged in the past year. One Hundred Days, One Hundred Dinners convened Americans of different political and social stripes for the first three months of Donald Trump’s administration. The dinners were the invention of Emily May of Hollaback!, an anti-street harassment nonprofit; Lennon Flowers of The Dinner Party, a dinner series targeting millennials who have experienced personal loss; and Jennifer Bailey of the Faith Matters Network, a collective of faith leaders of color. After seeing the first hundred dinners, the organizers decided to continue the project, rebranding it as the People’s Supper.
Another effort, called Cultivate the Karass, invited emerging leaders from either side of the aisle to take part in a private retreat in the woods of Maryland. Founded by Lori Brewer Collins, an executive coach, this model cultivates civility by building bonds of friendship among people who might eventually be in positions of power. The invitees were, as Brewer-Collins explained from her keynote talk at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), “the kind of people we expect to shape the public agenda for the next twenty years.”
The data suggest these efforts are sorely needed, that the election sowed seeds of discord even among families and friends. Sixteen percent of Americans stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of November’s election, according to a January 2017 Reuters poll. Thirteen percent say they have ended a relationship. Seventeen percent have blocked a close relative or friend on social media.
June’s shooting at a practice for the annual congressional baseball game was only the latest (and one of the most tragic) examples of politically-motivated hostility. After that event, the catcher on the Republican team, Representative Rodney Davis, told the Washington Post that “It’s my breaking point…The way we talk to each other has to change. The political hate has to end.” The creators of these projects, and many of their participants, believe that events gathering the left and right over meals, in living rooms, for casual and respectful discourse, can help end that political hate.
Although Blade’s Living Room Conversations are distinctly political, and favor relatively partisan topics, the People’s Supper takes a broader view of difference. While Emily May points to political motivations for starting the dinner series, attendees say they’re happy to merely meet people from different backgrounds. At a recent supper in Brooklyn, there was not a single self-professed conservative in the bunch, though the participants represented a mix of races, sexualities, and gender identities, hailing from Oregon, Ohio, New York, India, and Nairobi. The conversational prompts provided also eschewed distinctly political topics: “Where, when, and from whom did you first learn about being a citizen? What actions do you take to build a country that you dream of?” The questions were wide-ranging and invited personal experiences over partisan opinions.
The Cultivate the Karass retreat, meanwhile, is shrouded in secrecy, even for participants. When the founder, Lori Brewer-Collins, distributed invitations, she took care to keep all invitees anonymous. Those who accepted agreed to a multi-day retreat at a remote location, with limited internet access, and no knowledge of who else would be attending. After the fact, participants could share little of their experience to protect the attendees’ privacy and ward off negative reactions.
Not everyone wants to bridge partisan divides, as evidenced by one participant’s experiences following the retreat. Speaking on a PDF panel, Ashley Spillane, who was president of Rock the Vote and now works as a consultant, said that she recently began working on a project with someone from the Trump campaign after meeting at CtK.Campfire. Seeing them at events together, Spillane’s liberal colleagues would often pull her aside to ask what the hell she was doing.
Though differing in approach, the theory of change for each event is relatively similar: put liberals and conservatives into the same room, somehow remove the layers of partisan rancor, and they will find common ground.
For the founders of Cultivate the Karass and the People’s Supper, this mission is deeply personal. Cultivate the Karass founder Brewer-Collins was inspired by the legacy of her son Jake Brewer; Emily May, co-founder of the People’s Supper, by her relationship with her father.
Longtime attendees of the Personal Democracy Forum will likely remember Jake, who tragically died in 2015 after losing control of his bike during a charity bike ride and colliding with an oncoming car. Before his death, Brewer lived in a house divided. A staunch Democrat and Obama White House staffer, Brewer was happily married to a vocal Republican pundit, Mary Katharine Ham. Brewer’s wife was his “loyal antagonist,” a phrase which Jake’s mom defines as a “friendship between two people with irreconcilable differences who, for whatever reason, want to have regular conversations with someone from outside their political tribe.” Brewer and his wife were model loyal antagonists as well as the inspiration for Brewer-Collins’ new initiative.
Cultivate the Karass, in fact, is a reference to a post-it note that she found on Brewer’s desk at the White House after he died. It refers to a word from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle and is defined as a network of passionate individuals who, often unknowingly, are working together to fulfill a shared intention for the common good. (According to Civic Hall co-founder Micah Sifry, Jake got the phrase from then-Office of Science and Technology Policy deputy director Tom Kalil. Copies of that post-it can be found on the laptops of many of his friends; rumor has it that Obama staffers left them strewn across the White House as they handed the keys to the Trump administration.) CtK.Campfire, as Brewer-Collins branded her retreat, is an effort to build on the work of Jake and his karass.
Brewer-Collins imagines the retreat as a kind of transpartisan exercise in cultivating the leaders of tomorrow. Introducing a panel about the retreat on the first day of this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, Brewer-Collins rattled off a list of contemporary corollaries: “Imagine if Loretta Lynch, Peter Thiel, Cecile Richards, Rand Paul, Sheryl Sandberg, Stephen Bannon, Sonia Sotomayor and Paul Ryan had met at a retreat fifteen years ago? That was the hook.”
At that same panel, CtK.Campfire attendees played a game with the audience. They couldn’t reveal much about the retreat itself, but they could run their audience through some of the paces. Panelist Cristin Dorgelo led the exercise. She had served as Chief of Staff in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology and told the audience that she had a loyal antagonist in her own life—her partner.
Arranging two dozen people in something resembling a line, Dorgelo read out questions that asked participants to realign themselves on a spectrum, according to their allegiance. The first questions were innocuous. Pancakes or waffles? Ketchup or mustard? Following each initial alignment, the facilitator would ask someone on each side to explain their choice. After listening to the explanations, participants could then move closer to one side or the other.
The questions progressed from simple preferences to assessments about the state of our democracy. Are third party candidates good or bad for America? What is more important for us to address: racism and sexism in America or our political system? Is the state of our democracy a “five-alarm fire” or just a lot of smoke? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the country?
What made this exercise remarkable was that people did move. After listening to strangers with opinions that differed from them, they were literally, physically moved. The game revealed not so much that we differ in our values and priorities, but that by engaging one another with heartfelt explanations, we can come a bit closer together on the issues that really matter.
Like Brewer-Collins, Emily May’s motivations for starting the movement that became the People’s Supper started with family. May enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton; her father enthusiastically supported Donald Trump. Learning that 86 percent of people who voted for Trump feel that “people like them don’t have any say,” May recognized her father in that disheartening statistic.
May has committed her professional life to combating street harassment. That work taught her that “stories shape empathy, and empathy builds community,” she said in her keynote talk from the PDF stage. To regain some of the community May felt America had lost after November 9, she began arranging dinners for people of differing political beliefs. She initially planned to limit the number of dinners to one hundred. She now aims to reach 750 dinners with the People’s Supper.
Since starting this project, May said in her keynote, she has “struggled sometimes awkwardly, sometimes nervously, to figure out how to sit down next to somebody who doesn’t think that I deserve basic human rights…and to hold them in their full dignity.” May embraces these awkward encounters because she believes they are the basis for bridging difference, building community, and growing as a country.
People’s Supper attendees expressed different motivations for attending. Maureen Ochs, an early twenty-something black woman from Portland who attended the same supper I did, heard about the dinners from her mother, who had hosted one at her home in Portland. Ochs’ mother urged her daughter to attend a dinner in Brooklyn, where she was living for the summer. She told Civicist she didn’t think there would be any Republicans at the dinner because she “felt like Republicans don’t want to have these conversations.” But, having just moved to New York City, she wanted to meet new people.
Allison Raygor, a liberal who grew up in the Midwest and has many conservative relatives, told Civicist that she “felt like her community in New York was too insular.” Although she didn’t encounter anyone with differing political beliefs at her recent People’s Supper, she was pleased that “everyone had a different experience and upbringing.” She came away thinking differently about the concept of citizenship, and committed to being more engaged in political events. A few days after the dinner, a family member posted a Facebook profile photo featuring a Confederate flag filter, and Raygor suddenly had to find a way to bridge those divides in a very personal way.
Like Raygor, Mamie Kanfer Stewart, the host of that Brooklyn dinner, felt her community was too insular. As a upper-middle class Jewish mom, she increasingly found herself surrounded by people incredibly similar to herself and her husband—“my community is for the most part Jewish people in their thirties and forties, mostly with children, who have really good jobs and were raised middle class and are now middle-and-upper class.” With two young children, Kanfer Stewart wants to model diversity in her own life. She wants her kids to see that she and her husband “don’t just socialize with the white middle class, but value being in a community rich with diversity.”
Kanfer Stewart’s dinner table during the People’s Supper fulfilled that goal of diversity. She was the only parent and the only Jewish person. Her table was racially diverse, and featured a mix of gender and sexualities, as well as different professional sectors. It also spilled over from arranged meal to casual conversation. After the official supper was over, Kanfer Stewart’s guests stayed for another hour of casual discussion and left with the promise of invites to future events.
Participants in all three sets of events raised the spectre of increasingly homogenous communities. Offline, many live in neighborhoods surrounded by like-minded peers, while online echo chambers filter out unwelcome news and personalities.
When Joan Blades launched Living Room Conversations, many of her Berkeley neighbors grumbled that they didn’t know any conservatives. To combat this separation, the Living Room Conversations team is now embracing video chat. “It’s not as good as breaking bread together,” Blades told Civicist. “But it makes it easier for people.” That way, she suggests, San Francisco liberals can talk to southern conservatives. Video allows Blades’ conversations to bridge geographic divides in order to bridge partisan ones.
Blades and her team also recently released a tool called Mismatch, a “kind of political dating service [to form] conversation buddies for people with different viewpoints.” There are ways that tech has made these divides worse, Blades concedes. (Blades’ colleague at MoveOn.org, Eli Pariser, literally wrote the book on The Filter Bubble.) But technology also represents an opportunity to take corrective measures and do the “bridging work” America needs.
Each of these projects—Living Room Conversations, The People’s Supper, Cultivate the Karass—are attempts to do that bridging work. They also may be valuable whether or not they smooth over disagreements between partisan neighbors.
Molly Scudder, an assistant professor of Political Science at Purdue University, suggested that these are democratic initiatives, “because they bring people together in conversation.” She continued, “politics is necessarily going to involve disagreement. We have different interests. We have different ethical commitments. But as democratic co-citizens we have an obligation to listen to one another and consider each other’s opinions. So even if these conversations didn’t reduce partisan animosity, they would still accomplish the goal of getting citizens to engage with one another. And that is a worthy democratic goal in and of itself.”
Scudder’s research examines the ways empathy and difference support or corrode democracy. Drawing on her research on the ideals of democratic deliberation, Scudder suggested that these initiatives contribute to the goal of deliberative democracy. “In my work,” she says, “democracy means having a say in the laws to which you are held. For a law to be democratic, the people must have played a role in its creation and development…Voting is not enough to ensure people have a say in the laws…We have to also think about how people come to form their positions in the first place.” For Scudder, projects that bring citizens into conversation with one another ensure that citizens actively form “an informal collective-opinion that can then be transformed into law through voting and representation.”
Living Room Conversations, The People’s Supper, and Cultivate the Karass promote conversation and deliberation, essential components of a functioning democracy. Whether bottom up or top down, in public or in private retreats, they attempt to breach the ideological walls that divide us. By finding ways to engage one another, their founders and participants are taking steps to, in the words of that People’s Supper prompt, build the country that they dream of.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Joan Blades began talking with leaders on the right in 2008. She actually started those conversations in 2005 when she became involved with Reuniting America. The article has also been amended to include Blades’ Living Room Conversations co-founder.