When you have conversations with those in your social circles, do most people agree on tough topics, or are they not even addressed? How diverse is your group- do most have the same skin color? Ethnicity? Income? Family structure? If you don’t hear different sides of a controversial topic, how do you learn? These are all questions Across the Table, a non-profit organization that brings 10-12 diverse guests together for a facilitated group discussion over delicious food, addresses.
As an introvert, I loathe small talk. I often avoid parents’ nights out not because I don’t want to get to know people, but because those surface-level conversations just drain me. Want to discuss the weather? You will see my eyes glaze over. Chat about your daily routine? *Smiles vacantly and nods* But if you want to discuss systemic poverty or the impact of social media on our societal structure, I am all ears. I have found that many people avoid tough topics because of their fear of controversy. I think controversy and unique perspectives, when encountered respectfully, are a key to personal growth.
I was invited to Across the Table by a wonderful friend who saw my interest in learning about how others live and think, and embracing their perspective. During my first dinner, the discussion revolved around our relationship with money. Whew, that’s a heavy one, right? The beauty of Across the Table, for me, was that I felt free to discuss my privilege or lack thereof without judgement. I could admit my previous biases, and ask sensitive questions (in a kind and thoughtful way) of others who have a different relationship with money. Across the Table lifts the barriers to many questions that are generally thought of as too sensitive or prying (but we all still need to be respectful to people’s feelings and situations).
Discussion are pre-planned by Lauren Grossman, the founder of Across the Table. She created the concept in 2008 in order to give people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives a way to connect over a shared meal. The organization originally started in Chicago, and relocated with Lauren in 2017 to Evanston. I sat down with Lauren to for a little Q&A about the organization to give a better perspective of what Across the Table entails.
Where do discussion topics come from?
Topics can come from anywhere! Often they come from conversations Lauren has with people she encounters, but they also spring from things she reads or listens to like podcasts. Two podcasts that have influenced her topic choices are Invisibilia and Death, Sex and Money.
Have there been any revelations you have seen throughout the years?
A major revelation is that when an attendee is quiet, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are having a bad time. People might be absorbing the conversation and thinking about their experiences, which is just as impactful to them as sharing. The revelation that “people might look like me doesn’t mean that they think like me” is a big one to many. Also, the fact that you can have a meaningful connection with someone you just met is a major revelation to first time attendees. Across the Table challenges assumptions and provides different perspectives you might never have otherwise encountered.
What types of diversity are represented in Across the Table events? How do you strive for diversity at each event?
Diversity is represented in a multitude of ways, and visible diversity is just one component. The obvious diversity categories are those of race, ethnicity, gender and age but diversity is also apparent in income level, religion, discussion style (big talker vs. quieter), childhood experiences, upbringing and much more. Events are advertised through multiple methods- online, community partnerships, through the education system, word of mouth and more.
How does food play a role in Across the Table events?
Food is the great equalizer. It creates a more relaxed environment and ensures that the event isn’t stiff or formal. Meals also create a shared experience and give an additional topic of conversation. Almost all meals offer a vegetarian option, and some locations are BYOB and at restaurants which are not BYOB, alcohol can be purchased.
What are the logistics of an Across the Table event? Who can attend?
Anyone aged 21 and over (because alcohol is served) is welcome to attend an Across the Table event. We welcome and embrace all walks of life- the more diverse the better, and no level of education or knowledge about a particular topic is required. All we ask is that you are respectful of others opinions and time. We try to explore new neighborhoods, locations and communities in Evanston. Events are $30, which includes a seat at the table and food. There are $10 ticket options for those who are on a budget, and each event has two $10 tickets available. You can see upcoming gatherings here.
What are some sample questions that have been discussed in the past?
- What does it mean to be free?
- What does it mean to be good?
- What does it mean to be an insider and an outsider?
What are some tips you can share to those interested in attending an Across the Table event?
1. Come alone. The dynamic changes when you know people in the room, and it is often easier to share honestly when you aren’t concerned with previous relationships.
2. Have an open mind. Yes, we all have our preconceived notions, but come willing to have those challenged or even changed.
3. Be willing to share. You can sit and process the conversation, but your input can give others a different perspective.
4. Have fun. This isn’t graded, no one is judging you on the quality of your answers.
5. Balance your contribution. Don’t dominate the conversation, but try to contribute in a meaningful yet appropriate way.
6. Choose a venue you haven’t been to before. Across the Table hosts events at a variety of locations in Evanston- from the sunny space of Saville Flowers, to community organizations like Family Focus, to the hip restaurant Peckish Pig.
7. Don’t worry about the topic ahead of time. There is no need to study or brush up on current events, just come with an open mind and an understanding heart.
For upcoming gatherings, make sure to regularly check their schedule here!