While we are constantly reminded of the interconnected nature of the world, this interconnectedness has not extended to our responsibilities as citizens. The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is an initiative that attempts to address this problem by bringing people together to connect around political, social, and humanitarian issues.
The basic premise of the project centres on sharing a meal, a universal ritual to which we can all relate. There is a twist though – the meal is shared around a computer screen, connecting diners from different countries via Skype. The project brings together diners through links with universities, media groups, and civil society organizations.
Eric Maddox, the project’s founder, has a background in conflict resolution and filmmaking. For him, the project is a way of reaching what he describes as the ‘third audience.’
The idea for the Virtual Dinner Guest Project arose while Maddox was making a documentary film in Palestine and Israel. He realized the film’s audience would develop an understanding of both sides of the conflict, while those actively involved in the conflict (as well as the subjects of the film) would not have the opportunity to see the movie or understand both sides of the debate. Maddox began to imagine how he could bring these individuals together to engage in this back and forth discussion.
The first dinner took place between New Mexico and “Old Mexico.” In just over a year, the project has grown to include thirteen countries in four continents, including North America, South America, Asia, and Africa. The Middle East has been a major focus for many of these events with exchanges hosted in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.
One of five finalists for the Skype ‘Heroes Program’, Maddox believes direct verbal exchange can have a powerful effect on individuals and their political perspectives. He notes that it is essential to “get people to understand that real people are living the things you are reading about… it allows us to see humanity in other people when we see their limitations are similar to our own”.
Through the informal setting of the Virtual Dinner, people break down simplistic narratives and caricatures through discussion. The ultimate goal behind the project, however, goes far beyond building cross-cultural understanding – the real aim is to foster grassroots change.
Maddox believes it is essential for citizens to be pro-active political activists, and to help shape high-level government discussions. During the dinners, Maddox steers the discussion to keep diners focused on issues that help explore tensions and prejudices. “These conversations are a form of facilitated dialogues, not chat roulette,” he emphasizes.
Maddox describes the Virtual Dinner Guest Project as “a mechanism to play catch-up to where our governments are having a conversation. People are not consulted or directly in involved in high level dialogues, although their destinies are absolutely impacted by those kinds of decisions. In a failing global economy, it is becoming essential to be involved in the world in a practical way, not just through charity donations.” Echoing a global trend propelled by revolutions and civil society groups, he states: “at the end of day why shouldn’t they be spokesmen – we are all just one voice among many.”
Describing the dinner parties, Maddox notes that each conversation is different. In the US – Egypt exchanges, participants discussed differences between Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, a detail often lost in Western media reports. The discussion surprised Egyptian participant, Noha Khattab. Because the distinction is clear to Egyptians, she never imagined anyone could confuse the two groups.
In an Egyptian – Tunisian dinner conversation, participants discussed the influence of Islamist politics in the two countries. Both groups said they did not see their countries as Islamic nations, but recognized that Islamist parties enjoyed considerable popular and electoral success.
The diners were interested to discover they had different arguments to explain the Islamic influence on national politics. For Tunisians diners, low electoral turn out explained the victory of the Ennahda party, Tunisia’s main Islamist group. For Egyptian diners, poverty and ignorance drove people to support the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties.
The Virtual Dinner Guest Project has also tackled some of the more sensitive issues in the Middle East. Virtual dinners have been held between LGBT rights organizations in Beirut, Jordan, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where activists shared campaigning tools and ideas.
A trip to Syria last year made a lasting and transformative impact on the Virtual Dinner Party Project. In Syria, the Virtual Dinner Guest team visited local villages and medical clinics, carried out interviews with medical staff, and held two virtual dinner events from an IDP (internally displaced person) camp controlled by the Free Syrian Army with Yale University, as well as with journalists and activists in Cairo. In these exchanges, Syrian workers and activists discussed the situation in the camps, healthcare provisions, and medical needs of the local population.
Maddox highlights the effect this journey had on the Virtual Dinner Guest Project:
“While we were travelling in Syria we visited a local hospital where staff were sleeping and eating on the floor and operating without anaesthetic and struggling with a grossly depleted pharmacy. We spoke with another local distribution centre in a small village that was terribly crowded and undersupplied. I was there for less than a week but the experience was deeply moving, I talked to a lot of people and it put the aims of the project in startling perspective. I decided that if I am going to continue to do this then I am going to do more than just facilitate conversations. Now, I have developed a whole curriculum that will now involve multiple Virtual Dinner engagements that produce measurable social impacts. Results must be an imperative.”
In contrast to the traditional aid paradigm, Maddox aims to focus on local activists and create south-south collaborations, in which people and projects with similar concerns can support each other through their own experiences. Maddox’s aim is to work toward a global network of local actors who interact and practically apply the lesson’s learned from Virtual Dinners in their work: “Talk, digest and then act. That’s us,” Maddox says.
“Conflict is always going to exist,” Maddox remarks, “but how you manage it is important.” For him, engaging people in discussion is the first step toward building peace, and he is pursuing this belief one dinner at a time.