Why you should care
Because it's worth opening your home and kitchen to help build understanding.
The oven door opens, and aromas of savory turkey and buttery stuffing waft through the air. You and your family members take seats and pass the potatoes, gravy, green beans and cranberry sauce until everyone’s plates are full. Then, over the sound of forks and knives cheerfully clinking against plates, you hear it from across the table. “Here’s how I see Trump …”
And so it begins. A certain relative offers her commentary, followed by an unfurling of sentiments that go against your deepest-held values. You look down at your plate, the food suddenly unappetizing, and wonder why you thought it would be any better than last year.
As the specter of the 2020 election looms, many people this holiday season are wishing for fewer political dinner discussions. Justine Lee and I, on the other hand, are hoping for more.
We started Make America Dinner Again the day after the 2016 election. “I kind of want to host a dinner,” Justine emailed me that November, “with Trump voters and non-Trump voters, and have prompts or starting points that lead to something delightful and real.”
America is like a family member you have undying love for — even if they mess up time and time again, you can’t help but hope that they’ll someday get it right.
Director of a homeless shelter
We spent two months planning our first MADA event and recruiting guests. We gathered a group of strangers: registered Republicans, Democrats, Green Party members and independents. There were people who voted for President Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and those who didn’t vote at all. Everyone was nervous at first, but by the end of the night we had accomplished our goal: We started to build understanding without starting a fight. As we said our goodbyes, a Republican guest named Walt offered to host the second dinner.
Three years and more than 100 events later, we’re still going. We compiled a guide that hosts across the country now follow, and MADA has 10 chapters in different cities.
Pew Research shows that when people talk to others with differing political viewpoints on social media, 59 percent find it “stressful and frustrating,” not “interesting and informative.” We did our own polling last year and found that “curious” was the top feeling our members described when interacting with opposing viewpoints within the group. But they said they were often “frustrated” when interacting outside the group. So designating safe spaces, or dinners in our case, where people can come for respectful and thoughtful discussion is key.
Sure, there are still days when topics like racism, abortion or impeachment reveal divides that seem too wide to bridge. “A lot of people I meet tell me they wouldn’t do this kind of work for all the money in the world,” Justine laughs.
We do this for neither money (it’s voluntary) nor fun. And just like family Thanksgivings, our dinners can suffer from moments of tension too. But we have learned to navigate these difficult conversations. The key is setting expectations and tone. We begin each dinner with discussion guidelines, reminding guests that the goal is to listen and understand, not debate and win. Among our guidelines are common courtesies such as no interrupting, no insults and no taking over the conversation, which facilitators gently enforce. We then ask questions that aim to get to know one another first, rather than dive directly into divisive topics. This way, people can be seen for more than their politics. We also give each guest a noisemaker to use if they feel attacked or need a break (nobody has found the need to use it yet).
But we have had a few heated moments, sparking one memorable comment: “Thank God for the wine!”
So why do we keep at it? For the same reason 62 percent of Americans spend Thanksgiving with their families, according to the Harris Poll, even though families regularly bicker and disagree. One of our guests at a dinner in San Francisco, Joe Wilson, put it best. He had experienced homelessness earlier in his life, and now is the executive director of Hospitality House, the place where he once took shelter. After he and other guests engaged in a heated conversation about labor unions, we paused for a moment to cool down and posed a question to the table: What gives you hope for our country?
“America is like a family member you have undying love for — even if they mess up time and time again, you can’t help but hope that they’ll someday get it right,” Wilson said.
We can’t help but hope that despite inevitable differences, Americans can keep talking. We can’t help but hope that we can find positive things to work on together, even if there are some things we’ll never see the same. This hope is fed by people like Joe, and Walt, and everyone who shows up in person or online to understand each other a little better, even though it’s hard, even though it can be awkward, frustrating and stressful.
This country is our family. So we will keep making America dinner, again and again.