How a Jeffersonian Dinner Can Change the World

creative commons photo by Michela Simoncini

A few years ago I was introduced to the idea of a Jeffersonian dinner. When Thomas Jefferson was developing the idea of an American Democracy he invited people with different backgrounds and perspectives to share a meal and debate the future of the country.

I’ve created a version of the Jeffersonian model called 831 dinners. It is 8 people, sitting together for 3 hours over dinner, having 1 transformational conversation about an issue of critical importance. After the Charleston Church shooting, I decided that I would host a dinner on the future of race relations in America. I have also hosted dinners on topics like civic disaster preparation and the future of philanthropy. A few things I have learned after 2 years of dinners:

  • A curated guest list is critical. Developing a guest list that gives you a diversity of backgrounds and experiences makes for a richer conversation. I aim for a balance of men and women, racial diversity, and people with a variety of professional experiences that relate to and are completely separate from the topic at hand. I have found that artists and organizers provide an interesting conversational balance to academics and foundation leaders. You don’t have to know everyone at the table well, it is a great opportunity to deepen relationships. Don’t invite people that won’t listen. This is a conversation, not just an opportunity for one person to pontificate.
  • Make sure that guests have background on each other. For each dinner I share a bio of each participants and a photo. It allows the guests to have a little bit of context before they are at the table and they are less likely to cancel if they feel like they are part of a group.
  • Food and wine makes everything better. For each meal I make sure that I understand dietary needs and provide a family style dinner. There are flowers and candles so that it feels like a dinner amongst friends and not a focus group. I pick foods that aren’t too messy to eat and keep a bottle of wine on the table and a variety of non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Start with the personal. We start with introductions around the table and each guests answers the starting question that places them in the conversation as a human being not as a representative from a specific organization. An example is “when was the first time you felt hopeful about race relations in the United States”.
  • The host is a guide. The job of the host is to make everyone comfortable and move the conversation along. You also need to make sure that one person isn’t dominating the conversation and that quiet voices get heard.
  • Close with a commitment. Give participants an opportunity at the end of the conversation to talk about what they have learned or appreciated from the conversation and what they will do next as a result.

Have you hosted a dinner that made a difference? Share what you learned in the comments.