A civic dinner at ODC. Photo by Alona Christman

We started with a toast to a good neighbor, six of us strangers seated around pushed-together café tables inside Robin’s Cafe at the ODC Theater. At the corner farthest from me, Anita Won, an architect and student at California College of the Arts, told us about a woman who lived in her Chinatown apartment building in Manhattan with whom she would exchange small gifts, whether surplus oranges from the market or tidbits of information.

Good neighbors, Won said, “they see you, they know you.”

At the first of a series of Civic Dinners that ODC intends to host, we were in the midst of an experiment to create a community out of strangers, the “Beloved Community” that Martin Luther King Jr. imagined could be if we all respected and listened to one another.

ODC’s Julie Potter took on the role of facilitator. She said ODC may be hosting such a dinner as often as every month, perhaps with slight tweaks to the format, in an effort to make its space available for community discussions.

“I do take very seriously that we are a street-level community,” she said afterwards of the café. 

Dane Wetschler, who is studying for his MBA in design strategy at California College of the Arts, is one in a team of four that organizes the dinners nationwide – about 20 of them so far. The idea came out of an unconventional effort to figure out Atlanta’s new transit system in which some 200 discussions were held in the format. Now he’s floating the approach in San Francisco and other cities, including Vancouver and New York. He sees the dinners as a twist on the way people currently engage with local government and with one another.

“How can we make this a ‘thing people can do’? You can see a movie, you can go to diner, or you can host a dinner and have this connection with people you may not know and have a conversation where a diversity of voices are heard,” he said.

Well, some diversity. Two of the diners at my table studied in the same program at the College of the Arts, and we all seemed clustered pretty tightly on some political spot left of center. Potter told me afterward that diversity is a challenge for any gathering. 

“Anytime you’re inviting a group into a space there’s multiple publics,” she said, each of which might be excluded by the time of day, or the price point of the gathering place, or any number of other factors. But, she noted, “you have to start somewhere.”

The moment when conversation at my table really got going was when someone brought up the question of social media and how to understand “the other side.”

“I went and unliked everything I liked on Facebook,” said Louis Han, the diner to my left, who works in cannabis investment and lives near 16th and Mission streets. “For someone who isn’t intentional about it, it’s difficult.”

Won told us about how she had taken a trip to Louisiana during the election and heard stories of poverty, people who took $60-an-hour jobs directly after high school, then lost them when manufacturing jobs were sent abroad, and now have families to support that make going to college out of the question.

“I do see it, I do understand the rage,” she said. To have someone like Trump then sweep through the political scene and put everything in very basic terms, and go directly to his audience via Twitter rather than send messages through the filter of media and journalists, she said, was a brilliant move: “Just you and me in 140 characters.”

Here, like in every other event since the election, the outcome seems to have been a defining moment. But everyone is interested in doing something more than just create “social media word garbage,” as Won puts it.

“In particular, since the Trump election, people have been trying to get together and see how they can take action,” Wetschler told me. He wants to figure out a way to synthesize a “galvanizing moment for civic action.”

There’s something psychological about expressing one’s plans to engage out loud, Wetschler observed. It makes people actually do it. Following Atlanta dinners that kicked off the concept, he said, two people ran for office, and two started nonprofits. A few published op-eds in local papers.

“This is a space where I can show up not knowing anyone, and have a meaningful conversation,” said Elizabeth Madsen, a design researcher who sat across from me.

She is thinking about hosting her own dinner, though perhaps in a different format and maybe focused a little more on food (dinner at ODC was a cup of soup and avocado toast).

The trouble with developing a list of ways to start creating the Beloved Community, which was the theoretical goal of the Civic Dinner, is selection bias – most of us at the table were already engaging in some way.

Han volunteers at nonprofit that provides legal aid to immigrants, Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Madsen has started the Refugees United Artists Collective with her boyfriend, who fled war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s. Potter and I both referred to our work (hers at ODC, mine as a journalist) as ways we engage. Nobody promised to run for office.

In the end, this foray into Civic Dinners was more about the little things – creating a space for people to mull over some abstract ideas we might not normally take the time to touch.

“It’s difficult to find your place in civic engagement,” Won told me afterward, confessing to wishing more actionable items had come out of the conversation. But, she added, “It’s good, also, to see you’re not alone.”

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