Civic Dinners: Opportunities to Learn Through Connection

It was a Saturday night, and like many Saturday nights, I just wanted to relax with my friends. This night, I was especially exhausted, though – I had just wrapped up the Net Impact National Conference, a 3-day conference in Phoenix, Arizona on the intersection of business, social impact and sustainability. The conference had consisted of 7 breakout sessions, 4 key note speakers, and a career exposition. There had been thousands of attendees from Net Impact’s 380+ chapters in over 40 countries, so there had been numerous opportunities for networking as well. I, along with the other 10 attendees from the University of Michigan, felt content but exhausted.

But instead of heading back to our lodgings or going out to celebrate, we challenged ourselves one last time through a Civic Dinner. Civic Dinners is a national organization bringing together strangers to discuss hot button issues, like race, gender, politics and more. The dinner consists of one volunteer host (who receives training from the organization), 6-10 guests, 3 big questions on the pre-selected topic, and an ensuing conversation. It’s a special opportunity to meet new people and hear diverse opinions – the attendees are more comfortable sharing intimate experiences and perspectives, both because of the mutual intentions of the group, and because sometimes it’s easier sharing with strangers. I had gone to a Net Impact Conference-affiliated Civic Dinner the year before, and invited my peers to sign up with me.

The topic of my specific dinner was Common Ground. This aimed to encourage participants to grow more comfortable sharing their political beliefs, to get outside of their echo chambers and hear something new, and finally, to recognize the humanity in all people, no matter their political affiliations. The specific questions addressed how we formed our political opinions, times when we’d change our mind, and one potentially controversial opinion we held. Due to the polarized nature of politics in the US today, I was excited to engage with the other participants, but nervous to share and hear diverse political beliefs.

My dinner was different than expected. There were actually 12 participants due to a sign-up glitch, so it was less of a discussion and more a series of short presentations. However, this did allow a greater variety of opinions to be shared. Due to the social impact/sustainability focus of the conference, our political beliefs were all pretty close; however, hearing different stances on different political issues was still exciting but stressful. Each time I presented, I was trembling a little and very nervous – it took a lot of courage to share political beliefs, due to their inherent personal and intimate nature. However, it was a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn from the strangers around me, and I’m extremely glad I went.

This dinner was more than one conversation – it was an experience that challenged my leadership skills and developed new ones. I literally engaged the world by meeting and talking to Net Impact students and professionals from around the US, and even some who’d travelled internationally to be at the conference. It was amazing to hear the differences between the places we’d grown up, and to find our commonalities despite them. Learning about these new opinions gave me more context for why some people have the strongly help political beliefs they had, and prepared me to better engage with a variety of stakeholders going forward, since I can now be more empathetic. I also improved my active listening skills, since I had to be engaged to encourage other participants to be vulnerable, but couldn’t show my support vocally due to the large number of participants. I’m excited to apply these active listening skills and my strengthened empathy in my leadership roles and positions going forwards.

So while it wasn’t the wild celebration most students might have liked on a Saturday night, the Civic Dinner was an integral part of my conference experience. I was pushed to meet conference attendees from other states and even countries, and heard about the role of politics in their lives, and how they’d formed their political beliefs. I grew more comfortable with difficult conversations, and with asking difficult questions, through pushing myself to be uncomfortable. I also heard different political beliefs and the reasons behind them, which pushed myself to learn from the participants’ different experiences. I am very glad I was able to participate in this Civic Dinner, and am grateful to the Barger Leadership Institute for funding this opportunity.

 

By: Charlene Franke