connect / 2014
Moving forward together by taking #lifeafterloss out of the closet one dinner & story at a time.
Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by The Dinner Party, The Kitchen Widow, Hope After Project, First Seating
We're bringing Angelenos together online and off to break bread & #realtalk about #lifeafterloss, our number one equalizer.
Please describe yourself.
Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)
In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.
We’re bringing Angelenos together online and off to break bread & #realtalk about #lifeafterloss, our number one equalizer.
Does your project impact Los Angeles County?Yes (benefits all of LA County)
Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?
- Central LA
- East LA
- We currently have tables in Central, East, & West LA, and are eager to get more off the ground.
What is your idea/project in more detail?
Through beautiful, unstructured dinner parties hosted by friends for friends, we invite those who’ve experienced significant loss–a parent, a partner, a sibling, a friend–to dive into long-tabooed territory.
With the help of a growing network of hosts, we’re creating spaces that are warm, inviting & conducive to sharing the part of ourselves we otherwise keep hidden. Rather than treat loss as a conversation-killer, we’re using it to inspire our most profound conversations & deepest relationships.
And we’re working to tackle cultural taboos head-on, by creating spaces & tools through which those who’ve yet to experience this level of loss can gain insights about how to be better friends to those who have.
What will you do to implement this idea/project?
Our strategy is three-fold:
- Network-building: At the core of our work is a growing network of Dinner Party tables, each powered by 1-2 hosts, who are in turn supported by a combination of training retreats, open-source toolkits, and on-going coaching.
- Grow # of LA Dinner Party tables from 4 to 15;
- Find and support local Host Mentor to serve as the primary point-of-contact for local hosts, and an LA City Coordinator, responsible for matching participants & hosts;
- Hold quarterly dinners among local Dinner Party hosts
- Collect & share healthy habits, practices, & rituals: A 2013 study by researchers at the Harvard Business School revealed that people who had found a way to move forward had discovered and embraced what they called, “personal rituals.” We are working to surface and share the practices and resources that emerge around our tables, in order to capture stories and tools to inspire self-care.
- Publish digital and print copies of Finding What Feeds Us, a photo journal featuring recorded stories & rituals shared by wide range of Dinner Partiers, currently in process;
- Develop and execute LA-focused digital activation campaign, as a reminder to live boldly each and every day.
- Break down taboos: We’ve all got stories to tell: funny stories, gut-punching stories, stories that tell us who we are, and allow us to hold on to the people who live only in memory. All too often, however, those stories are invisible: something we keep hidden even from ourselves. We want to invite Angelenos to find and share their own stories of #lifeafterloss, and to remind them that they’re not as alone as they might think.
- In the spirit of The Moth and Vagina Monologues, we’ll host a public event featuring live readings, exploring loss and its role as part of our common currency: the subject that binds us across socio-economic, cultural, and generational lines. The event will feature voices and stories from folks at our tables, along with participants and members of partnering organizations, who share a commitment to breaking down taboos around life after loss.
How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?
LA is a big, vibrant community where it can be easy to get lost and to feel isolated; a place where finding your tribe takes time. It’s a city of thriving micro-communities that don’t always intersect, where connecting across lines of difference requires more than simply walking down the street.
But LA is also a city of unique and, if we may be so bold, extraordinary potential. It’s a city whose food culture is the product of the unique backgrounds & family histories we bring to it. It’s a city of yoga studios, community gardens, where wellness is taken seriously. It’s a city where entrepreneurs and communities reshape cultural boundaries so we can live better together, from Home Boy Industry’s Father Greg to TreePeople’s Andy Lipkis. It’s a city that’s mastered the art of telling stories, and changing the way we look at issues. We believe we can change the way we choose to connect here, and by doing it here, change the way we connect everywhere.
In the short-term, we want to make it easier to find people with a particular shared experience, and to treat loss not as the ultimate conversation-killer, but instead as a door-opener—one that can lead to profound conversations and deep relationships.
In the long-term, we want to to dismantle prevailing taboos, and to establish a new set of norms among young people who’ve experienced significant loss. We want to realize a day in which young people everywhere can easily find a Dinner Party near them, or else start one of their own: a day in which it’s perfectly normal to get together with people you know who’ve lived through similar experiences, and talk openly over dinner about subjects we otherwise keep under lock and key. We’d like to see increases in the number of people replicating our strategy, measured by toolkit downloads, and evidence of impact on the local dialogue, measured by everything from the number of people reached online and off, to the number of local influencers engaged.
We foresee a day in which Dinner Parties in LA are as pervasive as AA meetings, and as culturally acceptable and readily accessible as yoga and meditation classes: a day in which young people who have experienced loss are recognized not as objects of pity, but as better listeners and better leaders, characterized by profound empathy, resilience, and agency.
Whom will your project benefit?
Ours is a community of mostly 20- and 30-somethings, who’ve each experienced significant loss, and get together over Dinner Parties to talk about it and the ways in which continues to affect our lives. Some of us have lost parents; others, siblings, partners, or friends. For some of us, it’s been six months, for others, sixteen years. Some of us are actively grieving, others not. Our identities and labels include gay, straight, women, men, unmarried, married, of varying backgrounds, creeds, and economic strata. Some of us have struggled in visible ways, grappling with depression, or eating disorders, or general listlessness. Others were simply leading what author Parker Palmer calls, “divided lives”: compelled to cover up a key part of themselves.
What binds us together is a refusal to subsist on platitudes: a promise to one another to abstain from bullshit, and to speak our own truth, as others speak theirs. We’re not trying to “fix” each other: we’re creating a space where it’s okay to be not okay, where it’s easy to swap therapists’ contact info, where we can cheer each other on on our good days, and be the person to call on the bad.
Over the coming year, we’d like to develop partnerships with individuals and organizations working in parts of LA where loss and trauma is daily reality. We have no grand illusions about bringing candles and flowers and potluck dinner parties into neighborhoods where crime rates run high and children are more likely to attend funerals than graduation ceremonies. Yet we’ve found that loss can serve as an extraordinary bridge-builder across lines of difference, be they cultural, economic, or age-based. While our stories may be different, each of us knows what it is to be alone. In naming that, we believe we can learn to see one another not as “other,” but by what we have in common below the surface. We want to work with those already on the ground, and to help create tools that make it easier to talk openly about shared experiences of loss.
We’re inspired by the possibilities latent in bringing people together from across cultural lines who may appear to be leagues apart, but through a dinner party conversation, discover parallel experiences. We see a future of advocacy and action enabled by these connections, and fueled by the epiphany often had around the Dinner Party table that we’re not so different after all, and that the pressure points felt in one of our neighborhoods need to be solved by us all.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
Our advisors and collaborators currently include the Center for Courage and Renewal (www.couragerenewal.org), and a number of individuals and organizations practiced in the art of #realtalk and opening up spaces where people can express vulnerability, as well as Hope After Project (http://www.hopeafterproject.com/). We can envision significant collaboration opportunities with others in the grief support space, including Camp Erin (http://www.ourhouse-grief.org/programs/camp-erin-los-angeles/) , where several Dinner Partiers have volunteered, and/or Our House, which several have attended.
Confirmed event partners include EngAGE (www.engagedaging.org) and Experience Talks (http://www.experiencetalks.org/), and we are currently in conversation with several other potential organizations with a passion for story. Finally, regarding a digital campaign, the Harry Potter Alliance (thehpalliance.org) is already on board, and it’s something we’d like to explore with several existing friends in this space as well, including ModernLoss (www.modernloss.org).
How will your project impact the LA2050 “Connect” metrics?
- Rates of volunteerism
- Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support
- Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)
- Total number of social media friends (Dream Metric)
- Residential segregation (Dream Metric)
- Increased levels of connection
Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.
RATES OF VOLUNTEERISM & % OF ANGELENOS WHO VOLUNTEER INFORMALLY Our work has been the direct result of a network of more than 40 volunteer hosts, more than 60 volunteers who’ve lent a hand with events and other needs, and a team of more than 20 designers, filmmakers, and other creators, who’ve given their time and talent to growing our brand and design assets through in-kind support.
To date, our work has been entirely volunteer-powered. Even as we work to build out the infrastructure required to meet demand and deepen our efforts, we will continue to rely heavily on volunteer support. There is ample research to show that service and volunteerism can help to restore a sense of purpose and value for people who’ve experienced loss or other forms of trauma. What’s more, we see ourselves as an extension of the maker movement, and a broader DIY trend that’s helping to shift our reliance from institutions and outside experts, toward peer networks.
ADULTS GETTING SUFFICIENT SOCIAL & EMOTIONAL SUPPORT + TOTAL # OF SOCIAL MEDIA FRIENDS: Our goal is to create a kind of modern extended family, comprised of resilient friend communities, for whom loss is merely the door-opener.
Already, we have extensive qualitative data to indicate increases in social & emotional support and expanded peer networks. To quote several Dinner Partiers:
“I felt relieved, knowing that for maybe even one night of my life I could talk openly about what has been so relevant and transforming in my life for the past 4 years. Because the group is formed of people (who I can now consider my friends) of my age group and mental wavelength, I feel that we have been able to easily go deeper than any randomly assembled grief group.” - Shaina, 24, Los Angeles
“The Dinner Party has provided me with a space of unconditional acceptance, warmth and comfortability. The people and the spaces have allowed me to really sit and reflect on my father’s life and death. I am reminded every time that I am not alone and that even loss can be a source of strength and connection with others.” - Eva, 28, Los Angeles
RESIDENTIAL SEGREGATION By lifting up voices of our own community, and those of men and women affiliated with our partner organizations through public events, cross-table gatherings, and a digital campaign, we aim to break down traditional barriers between “us” and “them,” forging connection and a common identity among people of varying age, class, and race.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project.
At an individual level, we aim to increase social connectedness (measured by feelings of belonging, and the percentage of participants who feel comfortable reaching out to fellow participants and their own personal networks in times of need) and levels of agency (measured by participants’ feelings of personal efficacy and hopefulness), and to decrease feelings of isolation (measured by increased understanding that they are not alone in their experience).
Catalyzing self-care is a key part of what we’re after, driving toward a day in which LA is the healthiest place to live. To that end, we intend, first, to measure the degree to which participants are pursuing their own self-care practices, independent of dinners themselves. Secondly, we’ll measure the number of people who have found, embraced, and/or shared “personal rituals”: practices that bear some relation to the experience or to the person they’d lost, and which, researchers have found, can play a crucial role in helping individuals to move forward.
What two lessons have informed your solution or project?
If what you need isn’t out there, build it: The Dinner Party began out of necessity, on a back deck in Echo Park. A group of women came together who had all experienced loss, and were searching for a 21st century answer to traditional grief support. A community that focused not just on loss, but on living well after. A community that wasn’t governed by a professional in a cold, institutional setting, but that felt comfortable, casual and inviting. That recognized how unique our experiences are, and how oftentimes we can be our own best experts. So we sat down to dinner. As new participants reach out, we hear time and again “I’ve been looking for something like this.” Ends up, the craving we shared for this type of community wasn’t a fluke. The Dinner Party is tapping into a deep cultural vein for a different way of living after loss, and we’re proud to be providing a format for that cultural conversation to be expressed.
Loss is the great equalizer: One of the reasons for starting The Dinner Party was to create an environment without resistance to talking about loss. Too often, news of a passing is met with “deer in the headlights” looks and a quick change of subject. What we’ve discovered, despite this apparent discomfort towards dialoguing about loss, is that many of us are hungry for the cultural permission to have that conversation. That’s why we’re looking forward to jumpstarting community-wide conversations about loss and life after - a mass coming out of the closet as we step past the taboo, and embrace the powerful outcomes of openly connecting over loss - a sense of normalization, deep connection and celebration for the time we have together.
Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.
Three reasons give us confidence that we can meet, and indeed, exceed the goals laid out above:
Demand: December 2013 marked our coming out party: Our first attempt to take what had, until then, been a largely underground effort spread via word of mouth. Since then, we’ve been completely blown away by demand. We reached many of the goals we had originally set for ourselves for the year within the first two months of 2014. Without even undertaking a concerted marketing effort, our wait-list in LA continues to grow.
Knowledge & networks: Beyond our personal experiences with loss, we bring to the table a set of professional backgrounds that have uniquely prepared us for the work ahead: within our core team, we have coached more than a dozen of today’s leading social entrepreneurs, and worked with some of today’s most prominent brands on digital activation campaigns designed to advance positive social change. We have developed an understanding of the key strategies required to achieve systems-change and to change the way in which we think about an issue, and organized 2,000-person conferences for students and recent graduates committed to using their talents for good.
Experience: Many of the efforts described above are already underway in some form, and have been honed and shaped over the last many months via firsthand experience and careful listening to hosts, participants, and partners.
Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?
The first major barrier has to do with internal capacity, particularly when it comes to match-making. Over the last few months, demand has vastly exceeded supply, both in terms of our ability to find and equip hosts, and in terms of our own match-making capacity. By building out our local team (in the form of adding a stipended Host Mentor and Local Coordinator), we hope to dramatically increase our ability to quickly and efficiently connect folks with similar interests to existing tables, and to start new ones as needed. In the long-term, we’re also exploring what a digital match-making platform might look like, through which people who’ve experienced significant loss can find and connect with existing Dinner Party hosts, or otherwise start tables of their own (think Meet-up meets OkCupid).
The second barrier is one shared by individuals and organizations across different fields, whose efforts aim to change the conversation, and the cultural norms by which we live. In the last two years alone, two million Americans under the age of 30 lost a parent, brother or sister. The problem is not loss itself, but the isolation that comes of it, precisely at the moment in which we are poised to launch careers and families of our own, and to find our footing in the world. Changing that requires that we put an end to the “deer-in-headlights” looks, and change the very way in which we look at loss: from an emphasis on grief, to one on “life after”. What does it take to translate increased awareness into behavior change? What will it take to realize a day in which getting together with friends over dinner to talked about subjects of shared vulnerability is a perfectly normal thing to do? We’re inspired by the work of BULLY and The Conversation Project and so many other friends and collaborators, whose work has lifted crucial topics into the public conversation, and enabled people to more easily connect with one another online and off.
What resources does your project need?
- Network/relationship support
- Money (financial capital)
- Volunteers/staff (human capital)
- Publicity/awareness (social capital)
- Community outreach
- Quality improvement research