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Setting the table for social impact

April 10, 2024

Gathering for a meal is a ritual central to human cultures.

A previous research participant inspired Dr. Cindy Holmes, associate professor of Social Work at the University of Victoria, to explore what’s really happening when you set the table for an inclusive and transformative conversation.  Chase Willier, a nehiyaw (Cree) Two-Spirit, trans community organizer, taught Holmes the importance of feasting. The act of eating together, she learned, is a relational, holistic community practice and a significant part of ceremony.

“What is the power,” she asks now, “of shared meals, dialogue and storytelling to build community, deepen understanding and create healing across differences of race, gender, sexuality, culture, age and faith?”

Together with partners Fionna Chong at Vancouver Community College and Leslie Williams at the Sharing Farm Society, Holmes has been piloting a collaborative, community-engaged research project to answer that question. Interested in initiatives that advance social justice, especially for communities experiencing systemic marginalization, they sought out intentional dinner dialogue projects that address social change and interviewed organizers about their goals, approaches and outcomes. At these gatherings, guests share food and engage in dialogue to build relationships and increase understanding on a particular issue.

In general, the events aim to reduce isolation, loneliness and discrimination. More specifically, they might address systemic racism, alienation of refugees and newcomers, Indigenous cultural resurgence, food sovereignty, homophobia and transphobia, substance use stigma, interfaith solidarity or intergenerational knowledge sharing. The communities and organizers decide what’s most relevant or pressing for them. 

“I was curious how dinner dialogues can reduce the barriers to everyone being welcome at the table,” Holmes says. “At a shared meal where we’re contributing to change, we are going beyond an intellectual experience. I believe something may be happening at the spiritual level even if it’s not a faith-based meeting.”

In addition to organizers of intentional events across Turtle Island, Holmes’ team interviewed members of Feasting for Change, an Indigenous-led intergenerational project that hosted more than 51 feasts in the nine South Island Coast Salish communities, as well as UVic alum and artist Regan Shrumm from What Artists Bring to the Table, and UVic spiritual care provider Min-Goo Kang who hosts Belonging Dinners for students on campus.

The researchers created an eight-episode podcast of their interviews, with episodes released from December 2023 through end of April 2024. They’ll also release at least one more episode on the themes they’ve unearthed.

Nina Fernando is executive director of Shoulder to Shoulder, a national coalition in the US committed to ending anti-Muslim discrimination and violence. In the podcast, she says that sharing a meal “is one step in building that strong infrastructure that’s needed in order to be effective and to make change. Sharing a meal with someone in your community is building a stronger, bigger community. Oftentimes, with this issue, there are really strong us versus them narratives that are being painted. Who are we and who are they?... We think that…dinner dialogues ... [are] creating a new sense of we in that context, a broader sense of us, and we think that’s profound.” 

“We saw the podcast as an opportunity for sharing stories, connecting people and helping to facilitate social change,” Holmes says. “I hope people are inspired by these stories to host an event in their communities.”

Listen to Around the Table podcast