Designing Democracy at the Dinner Table

Lessons learned from a year of trying to Make America Dinner Again

Illustration by Lizzie Oh

Just over a year ago, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States. For his opposers, his win came as a shock. For his fans, defending the choice to support him has at times meant defending your whole worldview. One thing for certain is that regardless of our political stance, many of us have been left feeling considerably disconnected from the other half of the country ever since.

While the 2016 election has caused some confusion and animosity between sides, it has also been a major catalyst for civic engagement. Looking for opportunities to get more engaged ourselves, my friend Tria and I wanted to do something a little different. That’s why we decided to Make America Dinner Again.

Left: Co-facilitators former frog Sahana Kumar and current frog Hailey Stewart prepare for guests. Right: Guests from our fifth dinner get to know each other in pairs before coming back together as a group to discuss how events like Charlottesville have affected their lives. (Photos by Maykel Loomans)

We realized that while there were plenty of ways for like-minded people to connect on their own personal interests and concerns, there are fewer opportunities for people from different walks of life to constructively learn from one another. We felt by exploring our differences, we might also expose what unites us.

Make America Dinner Again, or MADA as we call it, is our way of getting different people together, face-to-face, to share a meal and respectful discussion — even (and especially) on matters in which they don’t agree. In the past year, we’ve organized seven MADA dinners attended by more than 50 Americans, and have reached half a million Americans in all 50 states through our website.

Map of where guests have signed up to attend or host a dinner

Feasting On Empathy

Ultimately, MADA is a way of building empathy within a community, one conversation at a time. Because I work at frog, a human-centered design and strategy firm, I understand how essential empathy is in creating meaningful, memorable experiences. At a MADA dinner, we use design research techniques to help one another understand the real needs, behaviors and motivations that often inform our politics — not force anyone to come around to any one way of thinking.

Guests from our third dinner in San Francisco participate in the spectrum activity to demonstrate where they stand politically. (Photo by J.T. Trollman)

This holiday season, there will be many chances for us to gather around a table with friends and loved ones, many of whom will have different viewpoints on politics, religion and any number of hot button topics that can lead to disagreement. Rather than dance around important discussions, at MADA we think there are ways to let empathy guide conversation and make room for real, valuable exchanges.

In the past year since we’ve began this journey, we’ve been so encouraged by how open people are to sharing, so long as others are ready to listen. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned about how to host constructive conversations anywhere, even around the dinner table:

Left: Dario and Jan were MADA guests who later hosted their own dinner. Right: Guests from our 6th dinner make apple pie tartlets together. (Photos by J.T. Trollman)

1. An Invitation is a Matter of Trust

Some think MADA is about tricking both sides into public vilification, while others think it’s too soft. We’ve built trust by recruiting first-time guests by word-of-mouth and keeping the conversation respectful at each dinner. A year in, our work fostering a balanced set of perspectives and remaining neutral as facilitators has really paid off, and we’ve established relationships with a wide range of political organizations.

2. Be Prepared for Anything

While we do vet each of our guests before dinner, bringing together eight strangers with fundamentally different political ideologies requires setting the tone, and providing tools to reset the conversation if needed. Before any discussion, we set ground rules and have noisemakers or cards to flip over to signal when moderation is needed. We’re ready with dozens of questions and prompts, but allow room for our guests to guide the conversation.

3. Civic Engagement Comes in Many Forms

For Tria and I, MADA is one of our ways to engage. We’re not experienced political organizers, but it has made use of our skills and passions, which is bringing people together through food and conversation. Some of our dinner guests may look to voting, protesting, donating or even running for office as their chosen civic duty. No matter how they do it, however, we’ve found people like being free to engage in their chosen ways.

4. Keep the Conversation — and Attendees — Moving

Our guests love breaking the ice by cooking dishes they’ll later eat together. We also use activities to keep us all up and engaged. In one, we ask attendees to react to statements like, “I will never change my mind about gun control.” Guests position themselves across the room to represent a spectrum of ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’. This showcases nuance in beliefs and becomes fodder for discussion.

5. Don’t Expect to Change Minds

Our goal is not to spark debate. We focus on understanding each other as people first — no real-time fact-checking or prepared arguments necessary. So while our guests’ fundamental belief systems are unchanged, attendees tell us they’re able to better understand how backgrounds and experiences shape worldviews. The result is real context for issues too often solely discussed as political agendas.

Left: Tria and Justine facilitating the second MADA dinner. (Photo by J.T. Trollman) Right: At MADA dinners, there is no shortage of laughter. (Photo by Maykel Loomans)

What’s Next for MADA

We’ve always envisioned MADA as best experienced as a dinner in person, but we acknowledge its limitations to scale. Currently, we’re working with Facebook to translate the MADA approach on the platform through an online discussion group so that we can reach more people, in more places.

Many of us have seen comment threads on Facebook posts turn hostile quickly. Folks tend to just want to prove each other wrong, and rarely think about the person they are attacking or responding to. This behavior has amplified the divisions and is precisely why we started MADA.

We’re also committed to working with young people to design similar experiences on campuses and expand what it means to be civically engaged. So far, we’ve led workshops and have dinners in planning at UC Berkeley, Lehigh University and a high school in Oakland.

Visit our site to learn more about Make America Dinner Again, to sign up for dinners or even host one of your own. For occasional updates, follow us on Facebook.

This post was written by Justine Lee, Knowledge Manager at frog San Francisco, and MADA co-founder Tria Chang.