What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I grew up in North Carolina, so the first thing that comes to mind is Hurricane Fran. It created a miles-wide jungle gym of fallen trees and left our neighborhood without power for two weeks in September of 1996. I was 11. I was old enough to know that it was a hard time for a lot of people: our neighbors, Ellen and Joanne, had a tree fall in their bedroom, and I remember my mom and stepdad worrying about the costs of removing the pine trees that had fallen in our yard.
But mostly, my experience was one of elation at canceled school, and — though I didn’t have language for it at the time — of community at its best. Ours was one of the houses with gas heating, so for a brief window, neighbors would come over for coffee and showers. People brought over chainsaws and cleared the driveways of elderly neighbors. We’d end the days with barbeques in the middle of the road.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes about the ways that moments of crisis can propel social connection, sparking acts of altruism and solidarity that defy our everyday norms. That was one of my early windows into the fact that joy and pain aren’t mutually exclusive, and the power of simple acts of care among people experiencing a shared challenge.
What values guide your work?
I want to live in a world where humans can be human. We devote entire shelves to self-help, failing to recognize that our well-being is interdependent. We keep our inner lives secret, fearing our truths as well as those of others. We lament the decline of conversation when the problem is really that we do not give ourselves permission to talk about the things that truly matter.
My mom grew up in a world that told her she was small. She refused to believe it and taught me early on that we are each our own best experts, that nothing is fixed, and that we have a continual capacity to learn and grow, to fall down and to get back up again. She understood that a person's worth had nothing to do with their bank account and taught me to value all currencies equally: money and meaning, purpose and pleasure.
What are you working on right now?
This last year was a big one for The Dinner Party: We launched a platform, where — for the first time — Dinner Partiers can browse open tables, sign up to start their own, and join a table of their choosing. There, we connected 1,273 Dinner Partiers to tables, and matched 668 Grief Buddies to one another.
There's a myth that community just builds itself. Over the next year, we're continuing to do a bunch of work under the hood to make it easier to find your people. We're bolstering our support channels and touchpoints with our community, improving things like data analytics, and finding ways to be in closer touch with our community on an ongoing basis.
Our partnerships team is also working on a lot of cool projects. We're teaming up with the NYC Office of the Prevention of Hate Crimes on a year-long supper series between city agencies and their constituents to ensure that policies are designed with real people in mind. New York City has seen a spike in hate crimes and acts of violence, so the goal is to counter a narrative of growing mistrust by connecting New Yorkers across difference.
Additionally, we're partnering with Honor the Promise and a team of Afghan refugees on a resettlement project, providing peer-to-peer support and opportunities to build social capital and stronger bridges with their new neighbors. We’re also working with long-time partners in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on a constellation of projects, including community-wide festivals, dinners, storytelling events, and a five-part racial justice series to equip a team of local leaders with a process and tools to help their communities navigate moments of rupture.
At the root of all those undertakings is a belief that healing is a collective enterprise. All of these issues are bound up with one another: You can't talk about grief and isolation without also understanding the ways power and positionality show up in a conversation, and you can’t talk about healing divides without creating opportunities to connect as complex and caring human beings.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
For an organization premised on in-person gatherings over meals, we had to undergo a complete rewiring. The Dinner Party went from connecting grieving 20-, 30-, and early 40-somethings around in-person, at-home gatherings, to connecting people virtually, either in small groups or one-to-one.
At first, I was pretty skeptical of whether you could get people to be real online, whether you could express care and attention without the ability to make eye contact, and whether my notoriously flaky generation would become even flakier. I’m happy to say I was completely wrong. It is indeed possible to spark vulnerable, authentic conversations through a screen, and to cultivate real community with people who may never meet in person, though both depend on real intentionality.
What's been even more surprising is that some needs are actually better suited to virtual communities. Physical access is no longer a barrier, which has been a boon for everyone from parents with young kids, to people with disabilities, to folks in rural communities who were previously having to deal with long commutes or permanent waitlists. And being online has made it a lot easier to find your people: In the last year alone, our community created 73 affinity tables for folks who share a particular identity or experience, including tables for BIPOC grievers and LGBTQ+ grievers; tables for folks who'd experienced the loss of a partner, a sibling, both parents, estranged parents, or pregnancy and infant loss; and tables for folks who'd experienced loss to suicide, addiction, COVID-19, or violence.
Grief impacts who we can relate with, which is why it can be hard to sustain friendships with people you've known a long time, and why it can open the door to connections with people who you'd never expect to relate to. It has meant that someone in Los Angeles can connect with someone in Nebraska. We're no longer dependent on being in the same neighborhood or subway line, making it easier to connect with people who share some of the particularities of our experiences.
On a cultural level, grief went from being a taboo topic to the stuff of headlines. 2020 unleashed a nationwide reckoning with collective grief and racial violence and a conversation about whose grief is and isn't seen. It became permissible to say we're not okay, as well as interrupting a tendency to project a filtered image of only our best days, rather than an honest naming of our worst. We can already see the latter fading from view, but I hope we were left with better muscles for sitting with real vulnerability.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
My 10-month-old is quite simply effervescent. He's quick to laugh and constantly delighted by his discoveries. He has this one slightly mischievous, conspiratorial smile: a way of crinkling his nose and inviting you in on the joke. I've spent the last 12 years living in a group house with six other roommates, so it's been a real joy, too, to see other people’s delight in him, and to merge my family with my chosen kin.
But if I'm honest, joy is probably the thing I'm first to let go of when it comes to working. The last several years have required a slog, a nimbleness and perseverance to push through obstacles and setbacks of every shape and size, and a willingness to sit with pain without averting our gaze. I'm coming to understand, in my own body and in our work, that joy is engine-fueling, that doing hard things necessitates moments of play and pause, and that we can hold reverence for the things that deserve it and irreverence for the rest. In 2023, I want to exercise a commitment to joy and play.
Several colleagues of mine have a knack for embedding moments of delight and surprise into everything they do. It's them and the artists and playmakers from whom I want to take my cues.
So, I'm hopeful that, organizationally, we're finally in a place where we can emerge from years of steeling ourselves for the next curveball, and I'm hopeful that the same is true of us societally. I hope we can look back on 2023 as a garden of festivals and gatherings, online and offline, as a push-back to endemic loneliness and toxicity because we're now clear on their consequences, and that we are witness to a proliferation of acts of care and a commitment to hope over despair.