Making final preparations for the community dinner that was about to take place, Lauren Grossman, the founder and executive director of Across the Table, considered carefully the potential dynamics of the event. The topic for Oct. 16 was “What does it mean to have power? A conversation with the Evanston Police Department.”
Two days after the event Ms. Grossman sat down with the RoundTable to talk about the evening and about Across the Table more broadly.
“I always hope that people leave wanting more. I feel like in general, in experiences in life – like good theater – you want a play to end with people wanting more. With Across the Table I want people to leave still thinking about the topic, wondering what someone would say to a different question, wanting to have more connection with someone they met.”
Ms. Grossman facilitated the Oct. 16 dinner, which was attended by six members of the Evanston Police Department and six Evanston civilians. She said she had just heard from Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Officer Tanya Jenkins, with whom she worked to organize the dinner. They had both indicated they would like to partner with Across the Table on additional dinners going forward.
For the Oct. 16 dinner Ms. Grossman had prepared 25 questions but only asked two of them. She said the conversation flowed very naturally, but that for many conversations she will have to pull more from the questions she has prepared. “I left that one thinking OMG, we have to do this again,” said Ms. Grossman.
She attributed the flow of the conversation and everyone’s feeling that it was a success to the fact that there was a very balanced group and a very interesting topic. The Oct. 16 dinner included not only a balanced blend of police and civilian representatives but also a balance of men and women, which is not always the case. Ms. Grossman said there are not generally as many male participants in the dinners as women. Asked why, she said, “It’s hard to say, because I’m a woman and don’t want to make assumptions. But I think the concept of group gatherings where people share feelings and experiences may be something that men aren’t drawn to in the same way women are. We do always get men, just not in same numbers as we get women.”
Ms. Grossman said she has considered having the same group of people meet several times, but that she believes it is not always possible to replicate the connections and experience. “You can have the same people for each gathering but won’t necessarily have the same vibe,” said Ms. Grossman. “Their day before walking in, their mood, their demeanor can affect the tone. Many times, I’ve left thinking about a conversation thread from the middle of a dinner and wanted to keep that going. The positive flow could have had to do with something that happened during the introductions or during the conversation of the hour and a half before.”
The format for each dinner is deliberate. In addition to carefully chosen topics and considered discussion questions, there are pre-discussion warm-up questions that attendees ask of a partner and introductions they make for each other based on the answers to the questions.
Some of the conversation topics from past dinners include how appearance has impacted people’s lives; how money has played into their daily life, identity and relationships; whether or not telling the truth is always the right thing to do; what it means to be good; whether it is always good to trust our instincts; what the American Dream is and whether or not it still exists; and what it means to be a success.
The Oct. 16 dinner in Evanston was the 92nd one Ms. Grossman has organized. About a third of the 92 have taken place in Evanston, while the rest were held in Chicago. During the time she was living in Chicago, and before she had her two sons, she hosted a discussion three times a month.
Ms. Grossman said there is usually a waiting list of people who would like to be included in the dinner, and she believes that has in part to do with good “ingredients.” Those include a quiet, comfortable and welcoming space; good food; and an excellent facilitator who is really welcoming, really organized and comes with lots of experience. Ms. Grossman works with two other facilitators.
The other critical ingredient she talked about is having participants who “will come and share their own experiences and listen.
“They have to be willing to go along with how the dinner is organized, which is very loose,” said Ms. Grossman.
“And you want people to come who are open – open to share their own experiences and who are open to what other people see differently.”
She said people do often disagree with each other and that while she wants that to be part of the discussion, she will sometimes need to move the discussion along. “I often use humor in those instances. But I remember having a situation when someone wouldn’t let something go, but I use the ground rules I set at the beginning. I’ll say something like, ‘I totally hear you, but we’re going to move on.’ People have never ended up screaming at each other.”
Ms. Grossman said her hope is that people will form meaningful connections and will see that others see the world differently than they do. She said the point is not to solve problems, just make connections.
“We live in a diverse community and I like to have all corners of the community represented, but no one is required to be representative of their specific identity, religion or group. It’s all about developing understanding of different perspectives,” said Ms. Grossman. “It is supposed to be fun. It is deep and meaningful and important, but also fun.”