Hosting a dinner party that encourages social interaction requires a willingness to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Just as in cooking, the quality of the ingredients can make the difference between bland and flavorful.
Invite people outside your networks, and encourage them to bring others. Marnita Schroedl and Carl Goldstein of Marnita’s Table work to ensure that at least 50 percent of the participants at their events are people of color, and half are people who are living below the poverty line. Select a topic–for example, affordable housing–and then invite people from all sides of the issue.
A group of 30 to 40 people works well, Goldstein and Schroedl say, but you can start smaller.
Hosting the gathering in a home is essential. It makes people feel safe and secure, and it breaks down barriers. As Schroedl points out, “We do not welcome the other into our home.”
Don’t use name tags. Allow time at the beginning for people to mix informally over appetizers, wine, and soft drinks, and then initiate a round of self-introductions. Ask people to talk about themselves in response to a question related to the evening’s topic. For example, “What’s your personal immigration story?” Suggest a two-minute time limit.
Food and music are part of the learning and sharing experience. Offering different cuisines, including vegetarian food, makes more people feel welcome. Hot pot dishes, where guests do some of the cooking, help to build connections. Home cooking isn’t required, however; consider ordering from a small ethnic restaurant.
Multiple food stations give participants an incentive to move and mix. To facilitate discussion, place a question related to the topic at each food station.
Before the evening ends, ask everyone to share with the group a valuable insight from his or her conversations.