Dinner talks indeed brought people together, report finds

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Could a pasta, chicken and meatball dinner really bring people together to talk civilly about the most important issues facing us as a state? Those in charge of the experimental dinner sessions are saying, yes, it can indeed.

Starting in March, the Rhode Island Foundation ventured off on a social experiment that sought to find out that very answer. They called the undertaking “Together RI,” and held 20 neighborly meetings in communities from each county to gain insights on what major opportunities and challenges were present in the state today.

Now the results from these meetings are in, with information gathered from participant surveys and open-ended questionnaires provided at the conclusion of each meeting being analyzed and prepared into a 102-page report from the Social Science Institute for Research Education and Policy at the University of Rhode Island. It can be accessed at web.uri.edu/ssirep/together-ri/.

In total, close to 1,300 Rhode Island residents participated in the conversations that ran from March 22 to May 5. Of these participants, about 1,000 completed detailed surveys asking them what they felt the biggest challenges, strengths and opportunities in the state were.

Data was gathered not just from the information provided by the surveys, but through the actual conversations that people – in most cases total strangers – had with one another over a provided dinner and with minimal prompting from the facilitators. Data aside, the fact that people showed up and participated in productive conversations with one another was a mark of success for the Rhode Island Foundation.

“We wanted to promote civic and civil dialogue. Almost 1,300 people came from across the state in 20 locations around the state and they engaged,” said Neil Steinberg, President & CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. “We feel that we did, as a demonstration, say that if you give people the opportunity, they will come. And if you give them the opportunity to talk with each other in a civil and civic way, they can discuss the issues of the day.”

Steinberg said that discussions ranged from 24 attendants to 120 at each session. Ages ranged from three and a half month old infants to a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. Attendees were split up into tables of eight and asked to discuss various open-ended concepts – such as what issues pose the biggest challenge to Rhode Island moving forward, or what aspect of Rhode Island gives you the most feeling of pride.

Among the respondents, statewide the issues that people found most encouraging included the sense of community that accompanies living in a small state and the state’s natural resources, such as its coastlines diverse offerings, from beaches to forests, all within short distance of one another. “The small size makes it a haven for the arts, music, and access to nature for all,” the report quotes one respondent saying.

Challenges most commonly voiced among participants included the broad “government/taxes” category, as well as education, community concerns, infrastructure, concerns about inequality and the economy. Social issues such as drug use and the lack of drug treatment services, insufficient amount of jobs suitable for young adults and the scale of infrastructure issues were also common themes throughout the dinner discussions and accompanying services.

Two events, one in Warwick at the Pilgrim Senior Center and one in the Varnum Armory in East Greenwich, attracted 148 attendees, of which 118 surveys were filled out. This data resulted in some unique insights separate from statewide responses, including concerns over the acidity of the bay and the desire for more wind power to bolster the state’s renewable energy footprint.

In terms of limitations of the experiment, not all demographics were evenly represented. In total, 78 percent of respondents who answered the surveys identified as white, while only 13.7 identified as non-white. A majority of the respondents (65 percent) were aged 55 years or older, and about 48 percent of the respondents reported making $75,000 a year or more. About 20 percent of respondents made $49,000 or under.

However, the results also varied by community. For example, discussions held in Providence saw a much higher percentage of non-whites and lower income individuals than discussions held in areas such as South County or West Bay communities.

Demographics also somewhat drove responses, as lower income individuals saw education to be a bigger challenge (20 percent of respondents) than middle- or upper-income level respondents (14.7 and 12.3 percent respectively). While inequality was listed as a challenge by 14.4 percent of low-income earners, it was not listed as a significant challenge for middle- or upper-income respondents.

Steinberg mentioned that he saw this initiative as a purposefully broad, large-scale proof of concept that could be further refined and utilized as a tool to get more specific insight into targeted categories in the future.

“When we do other things, like tackle education or healthcare, we may consider this model,” he said. “Maybe we’ll do four of these around the state and see what people think about healthcare or K-12 education.”

To Steinberg, the most important stats from the report are the ones providing an overarching theme of positivity regarding the forums.

Sixty percent of respondents reported that the tone of the conversation was friendly, while another 40 percent said it was thoughtful. More than 72 percent of respondents said they better understood issues their community faces and 75 percent said they are more likely to become involved in community issues following their participation in the conversations. A full 99 percent said they met someone new by participating.

“I think we proved the hypothesis, and that was the intent,” Steinberg said. “We gave people the opportunity and it was very exciting to see it happen. That was the purpose. As we said, now our job is to communicate it.”

Steinberg said that a copy of the executive summary of the report went out to the Governor’s Office, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President last Thursday. When asked what he hoped public officials will do with the report, Steinberg said jokingly, “Read it.”

“Who knows what you learn from it?” he said. “You would hope it would reveal that it really does make a difference to go out and talk to people or bring them in.” He added that, “We are now, more than ever, committed to being out in the community. We saw the value in this.”

Steinberg said that, were he to do the experiment all over again, he would ask community groups to encourage their members to show up to the discussions rather than simply spread the word about it. He also teased the idea of holding some at universities to encourage younger individuals to participate. He said that proving the ability for people to come together and talk about real issues, outside of social media arguing, was important.

“I didn’t see what the downside was. The upside was a lot better. It felt good,” he said. “If we can do more of this collectively, of civil and civic dialogue, it’s awful otherwise. It’s bad out there right now.”

“That was the concept behind the food,” he continued. “I guess we could have gotten to the point of food fights, but do I really, really want to get into an argument with the guy who just passed me the pasta?”

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