Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The Knight Cities Challenge-winning project invited 400 strangers from across the city to dine together around a two-block-long table.
A lot can be discussed over sweet tea and Southern barbecue, especially among more than 400 strangers gathered around a 350-foot-long table in Tallahassee, Florida. Diners poured in from all parts of town; some were new residents, while others were longtime Floridians. Some cared deeply about immigration while others wanted to talk about protecting the environment.
It’s all part of a new project called The Longest Table, which just won a $57,250 grant from the Knight Cities Challenge. Organized by the office of Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Leon County government, and a handful of community organizations, the project aims to use the dinner table as a medium for generating meaningful conversation among people of diverse ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds.
Such diversity can easily become grounds for heated debate. But “when you break bread with people, it changes it from being a debate to being about [building] relationships with people,” says Liz Joyner, executive director of The Village Square, which partnered with the city on the project.
The first event was held last October, with the table spanning two blocks in downtown Tallahassee. Sitting among platefuls of food and homebaked goods were politicians, new and longtime residents, kids, religious leaders, and local advocates. Running down the table was a sheet with conversation starters: What’s the biggest challenge facing our community? What brought you to Tallahassee? What keeps you here? Race relationship in our community is____.
Getting strangers to dine together around a lengthy table isn’t new; Melbourne has been hosting the “World’s Longest Lunch” for more than 24 years, with tables stretching 1,600 feet and three-course meals from Australia’s finest chefs. And every spring, parts of St. Petersburg, Florida, are shut down when the local public radio station hosts their own “Longest Table” event to raise money and showcase local cuisine.
But in Tallahassee, it’s less about the food and more about the dialogue. When Gillum first came up with the idea in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement had already begun taking shape. The unrest in Ferguson was fresh in a nation still reeling from the events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin.
“We wanted to ensure that we were getting to know each other on a personal level and understanding that folks on different sides of the city have different experiences,” says Jamie Van Pelt, community relations coordinator at the mayor’s office.
One way to do that is by getting people to let their guards down and to talk freely. Juan Escalante, a 27-year-old immigration advocate and an undocumented immigrant himself, remembers being nervous about bringing up immigration to a table full of strangers. “Growing up, my parents always taught me that in order to be polite at the dinner table, especially at a guest’s house, there are two topics you should avoid: religion and politics,” he says with a laugh. “It was a bit of a moment where I really did feel out of my comfort zone; it's a very polarizing issue.”
In the end, though, his fellow diners simply responded with curiosity. The woman who sat across from him even passed on contacts from her church, offering to help if he ever wanted to organize community events that focused on immigration.
“Here's a stranger essentially taking a complete chance on me, and outside of that small interaction, she really didn’t know who I was,” he recalls. “For her to open that door and make those connections for me regardless of my background and of where on the immigration debate I stood, it was very meaningful for me.”
With the grant from the Knight Foundation, the organizers plan to host at least two more events this year. For the next event, which will be held at the end of June, the organizers are taking the dinner off of the street and into the homes of individual residents. The idea: to have the city host 100 meals—some of which will be in restaurants—simultaneously to fuel more intimate conversations. Each willing host will cook for six to eight people in their homes.
It’s always been part of Gillum’s vision, says Barabara Boone, executive director of Leadership Tallahassee, which helped bring participants to the first event. “He didn't want [people] to be, 'Oh that was nice, ' and walk away,” she tells CityLab. “We're hoping that people will become more and more transformed by having conversation with people over a meal.”
After all, if food can bring entire countries together, it can certainly unite a handful of strangers from across the city. “In some ways, the challenge now is that we are no longer connecting with neighbors who are very different than we are,” says Joyner. “Instead, we're listening to angry politics on TV, and we're forgetting what we have in common.”
And for those who are shy about dining with strangers, Van Pelt has one simple reminder: “They’re strangers—until you get to know them.”