For our series Start the Conversation, we’ve been bringing people together who sit on different sides of a political or cultural divide, to talk about the issues that are important to them.
They’re civil dialogues, not debates -- and we hope they’re a way to try to bridge some of the divisions between us in this politically charged time.
A lot of us are taught never to talk politics at the dinner table. Especially if your guests fall on different sides of the political spectrum. But Make America Dinner Again breaks this rule, in a big way.
Justine Lee co-founded Make America Dinner Again one day after the presidential election. She says she wanted to put her energy into something productive to heal what she saw as a huge national divide. Dinner felt right.
"We think of food and a warm meal as sort of a nice conduit to conversation and understanding," Lee explains.
Tonight’s dinner is being held at a loft in downtown San Francisco. All the guests have applied online to be here.
There’s a young Bolivian woman who works at Facebook; a bar owner who describes himself as the trifecta: boy scout, frat boy, and Marine; a UC Berkeley graduate student whose family voted for President Trump; a conservative lawyer; and a transgender adoptee.
They’ve never met each other, until now.
After small talk over a meal of gourmet salads and pizzas, the guests are ushered to a big round table by the facilitators, Sahana Kumar and Hailey Stewart. Stewart lays down some ground rules.
“Try not to make judgement statements,” she emphasizes. “Don’t say ‘you’re bad,' ‘you’re wrong,' ‘you’re crazy.' Try to put this into ‘I’ statements, so ‘this made me feel...’”
In the first exercise, Stewart pairs the guests up and asks them to find one thing they have in common. After a few minutes of talking, Walt Shjeflo and Min Matson discover that they’re both from the Dakotas (Min grew up in South Dakota, and Walt is from North Dakota).
Other than that, these men are very different. Min is transgender, liberal, and was adopted from Korea as a child. A few years ago he adopted a son of his own, Aidan. Min's arms are decorated with colorful tattoos, and he wears a purple checkered shirt (his favorite color). Walt is a white conservative who voted for Trump. He’s a father of four and works as a lawyer in San Mateo.
Then the pairs are given a new set of instructions. They must ask each other two questions: What has shaped your identity? And what has shaken it in the last year?
Walt starts by telling Min he has been upset by how hostile the Bay Area felt to conservatives after the 2016 election.
“It was very disappointing to me to hear the things that were said to me in particular and to my friends,” he says. “Meanest things I can possibly imagine. And it really pissed me off.”
Then it’s Walt’s turn to interview Min. Min tells him that as a transgender person of color, he sees a lot of divisive racism and transpeople targeted in the media. And he adds that, because of how the media portrays immigrants, his Latino son’s identity “is under attack, and he doesn’t even know it yet.”
But then, there’s a connection. Walt asks Min if he would identify himself first and foremost as transgender. Without hesitation, Min responds, “I would say I’m a father first,” which seems to catch Walt by surprise. Walt chuckles and nods his head. “I say 'way to go,' because that’s how I identify too,” he tells Min.
It seems like Walt and Min could have talked about fatherhood all night. But Stewart, the facilitator, interrupts the group to take them one step further, into something she calls radical empathy.
When they regroup, each person will share their partner’s story, but in the first person. The idea is, if you can listen and then share out someone else’s story as your own, you can internalize it and create deeper empathy.
Walt volunteers to go first.
“I am Min Matson,” he begins. “I was adopted in Seoul, South Korea. I grew up a young woman and am transgender. Transgender seem to be targets and since I am transgender I think that is a difficult thing to do. I am proudest of being a father and a son.”
The group claps when Walt finishes. Then it’s Min’s turn to tell Walt’s story in the first person.
“I’m Walt Shjeflo. Many of my family members are small business owners and a lot of them work in agriculture,” Min says. “People talk about the South as being really racist. I really think that the Bay Area is very racist. You know, there's a lot of things that feel like they were done and now they're back again."
The group goes around the table, each sharing their partner’s story in the first person. It’s powerful to hear. After the dinner, I pull Walt and Min aside to ask them what they learned about themselves, and their partner.
Min tells me, “I think that Walt and I would be two of the least likely people to connect. I very much appreciate him. I think he is a very, very good-hearted person who has felt hurt and has felt left out in some spaces.”
I ask Walt the same question. “Min and I definitely disagree politically on issues,” he says. “But the thing I like about him is he's facing life's challenges in a positive way. He's trying to make things better for himself and his family.”
He pauses, then adds, “He told me tonight the two most significant things in his life were the first time he heard his adopted parents call him son, and he heard his little boy call him father.” His voice cracks ever so slightly when he says the word "son."
In just a few hours, a white, conservative Trump voter and a transgender, Korean adoptee broke bread and shared their stories -- and they came away with something that seems to be lacking these days: respect.
But the guests here tonight raised some questions. Once we find out what we have in common, what would it take to do the difficult work of hashing out our differences? How do you scale this kind of experiment beyond just eight people in San Francisco?
The Make America Dinner Again organizers have created an online toolkit to help people host their own dinners. Their hope is that people continue to meet, eat, and that the radical empathy keeps growing.