Eat, Read, Organize

For almost ten years my wife and I have held regular potlucks at our home. These dinner have been one of the most consistent parts of our life together. We have moved more than five times, changed jobs at least six times, got married, had a child, and through it all we have hosted these dinners. What began as a weekly gathering of some close friends and coworkers in Providence quickly spread until we had strangers showing up at our doorstep, and were meeting people at parties who would say “oh you’re the people who hold those potlucks…”.

I wish I could take credit for the idea. When I was growing up all my friends parents would gather every Wednesday night in the summer down at the local State Park for a “dish-to-pass.” They called it a sharing supper, and I stole that name for our first gatherings. Over time, the community changed, as did the location and name, but it always maintained a certain spirit.
We began the potlucks in Providence in the tumultuous months between September 11th, 2001 and the start of the Iraq War. It became a gathering place for a number of young organizers around Providence, and served as a place to share our concerns, plan actions around the city, and connect at time when many of us felt isolated by our countries response to 9/11. Later, in Amherst and Northampton Massachusetts the potlucks were a hub for poets, English grad students and union organizers working at the intersection of politics and academics.

It is this long history hosting and organizing these potlucks that has inspired a lot of my writing and thinking about the intersection of building community, food politics, and activism. So I was particularly interested when I recently received an email from the New Organizing Institute (NOI) that said “Just think: Oprah’s Book Club meets Potluck Dinner meets Crossfire.” The email was about a pilot project they are calling “The Dining Organizers” which they describe as “A new spin on traditional book clubs, the Dining Organizers will pull in progressives looking to meet new people, read engaging work about organizing, and participate in discussions with fellow organizers in small groups to foster new ideas.”

Besides a clunky name, the idea seems exciting, and DC is obviously a prime place to launch such a project. NOI is a great group, and I think they are on to something. They describe themselves as “dedicated to developing the practice of citizenship — voting, civic engagement, and training organizers as practitioners of democracy,” and root their theory of change in “engaging and empowering people around us, and by cultivating our own learning. We think organizers should have a fun, social outlet to discuss organizing and share best practices.”

Giving young organizers a social place to connect and learn seems all the more important now, in the wake of the election. Election years have a way of pulling people together – campaigns have a gravitational force that draws incredible people together. But now, as so many smart young organizers have spread to the far researches the country, gone off to work on a range of progressive issues, there is a clear need to gather and connect. It’s a good reminder that we are all still working towards common goals.

Our potlucks never had as much structure as the series of events NOI has planned, but I think the spirit was similar. I’ll be interested to see what comes from this initial pilot project. If there are people locally who want to try to get something like this off the ground in Western Massachusetts, let me know.

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