The evening was the sixth in a series of dinners and art exhibits, called “Looking for America,” that began last year, organized by American University and New American Economy, a pro-immigration group founded by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. The goal of the events is to restore civil, cross-party dialogue and to examine what it means to be American. But it’s not a free-for-all. There are moderators at each table to help guide the discussion.
After some chicken pot pie, New American Economy’s director of state and local initiatives, Kate Brick, shared the evening’s first prompt with her table: “What might surprise someone who’s on the other side of the political spectrum? And what do you think someone with different political views thinks about me?”
Gabe Carter, of Springdale, Ark., who works in sales and identifies as a conservative, went first. “I’ll start with a common misconception that people on the other side of the aisle would have, and that’s we’re all Bible-clutching, gun-wielding crazies, which is 100 percent not true.” The 38-year-old paused to read the faces in front of him. “I’ll back up,” he said, “that went one way to the other.” The table burst into laughter. “I hope that’s a decent kickoff, because I feel like we were all being very guarded,” Carter went on. “I hope that after tomorrow we can have a little more discourse on things that happen.”
The intent of the dinners is not to change minds but to change the tone of public dialogue. “Something that we’ve noticed with our students, especially over the past five years that I’ve been there, is this reluctance to get into tough conversations. ... They would rather walk away from hard topics than to actually engage,” Vicky Wilkins, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, told a group of moderators earlier that evening. “It’s been a real puzzle for us because we know that what comes from discourse is something so valuable to a society. The worst thing for democracy and as a country is silence. That’s why we’re here tonight.”
"Looking for America" grew out of smaller gatherings at the home of D.C. arts patron Philippa Hughes. Hughes has long been known for hosting informal salons at her 14th Street NW home, a pink apartment dripping with candy-colored art and whimsical touches including a swing. She also founded the Pink Line Project, a newsletter dedicated to cultural events in the region; it has blossomed into its own breeding ground for pop-up galleries and serves as a nexus for artists and patrons.
After the 2016 election, Hughes, a Democrat, felt compelled to talk to Trump voters. The daughter of a conservative Vietnamese mother and a white father who was a lifelong union member, Hughes grew up in a working-class suburb of Richmond. But as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, she felt out of place. “I’ve often felt invisible in my life, and I think that’s how a lot of America feels,” she told me. “Who is speaking for me? Who is listening to me? I want to let you know I’m listening.”
She started by inviting two liberals and three conservatives for a home-cooked dish of red and blue pasta and used a discussion about art to probe the concept of what it means to be American. Hughes repeated the exercise, dubbing the get-togethers “Blueberries and Cherries” dinners, a nod to the politically diverse guest list and the crisp dessert she serves that blends into a tasty purple mash.
At a time when most political discourse feels noxious, Hughes found hope in these shared meals and evangelized her message of civility at a TEDx talk at American University in 2017. Subsequently, with the help of AU and New American Economy, Hughes expanded beyond the Beltway, hosting dinners in cities from Anchorage to El Paso.
Drawing on the local expertise of community leaders and museum outreach coordinators, Hughes assembles the guest lists for each city, aiming to reflect a wide range of viewpoints. She’s had no trouble finding participants. “People actually want to talk to each other,” she says. “It’s actually harder to find people who aren’t open to it.”
Guests are asked to bring an object that tells their story and explain what it means to be an American in their city. In Bentonville, Laura Wieland unfolded a white pillowcase stitched with dozens of names in multicolored threads. The pillowcase is from her mother, a seamstress who was placed in a Japanese internment camp in Poston, Ariz., for three years; on the pillowcase, she stitched the names of fellow internees who signed the fabric.
Wieland identifies as a conservative, but she doesn’t feel that members of her community understand what it’s like to face discrimination. “When you hear about children separated from their parents, that has long-term damage,” she said. “I don’t like that part of our history right now in terms of how we’re dealing with immigration. We’re closing our eyes to it and turning our backs to it.”
As guests migrated to the dessert table lined with the signature blueberry-cherry crumble, Celeste Williams, a Democrat running to represent Arkansas’ 3rd Congressional District, and one of her opponents, libertarian Michael Kalagias, stood outside the Great Hall, chatting. Kalagias said later he had been seated next to a county judge, with whom he had fought a bitter battle over the construction of a courthouse. “We didn’t mention that episode,” Kalagias noted. “Shifting subjects may be one way to ease the pressure.”
Hughes hopes participants will apply this experience to their daily lives. And some already have, with encouraging results. Noelia Cerna, 33, a poet and immigrant from Nicaragua who was at the Bentonville event, told me about a month later that a man at a reading had recently criticized her work as anti-American. She asked him what someone from the opposite side would find surprising about him. “We had an interesting conversation about a friend of his who was an immigrant. I don’t think he changed his mind, but I do think he saw me more as a human being, which is important,” Cerna recounted. “I’ve actually started seeking out opposite opinions. It’s helped me start conversations with people I thought weren’t approachable, but now I have a better tool set.”
Leigh Giangreco is a writer in Washington.