Bring It to The Table: How a Table and a Flower Became My Weapons of Choice
By Imagining America | July 11, 2016
By Julie Winokur, Executive Director, Talking Eyes Media & Director, Bring It to The Table
Before the last presidential election, my 17-year-son called me the most politically intolerant person he knew. Of course this was relative to his teenage worldliness, but he had a valid point nonetheless. He told me that if the ‘other side,’ had a good idea, I wouldn’t know because I hadn’t been listening. His claim inspired me to travel across the country with a small folding table and invite people to sit down to discuss the roots of their political beliefs. What started as a journey of redemption turned into a campaign to reclaim civil discourse in America. At the core of this effort is a rallying cry for every citizen to take ownership of his/her biases and to recognize our personal responsibility in either dividing or healing the nation.
Bring It to The Table—which consists of a 40-minute documentary film, website, and interactive live events—is a call to action that grew out of my journey and is now being deployed on college campuses and in communities across the country. The project uses creative visual motifs (a star-spangled tablecloth, a folding table, and a small red flower pot containing a yellow flower) to launch participants into the uncharted territory of authentic dialogue. We tackle topics that typically trigger knee-jerk responses and bumper sticker slogans. But in our process, the conversations that occur are built on creating a safe space, active listening, and the pursuit not of ‘what’ people believe, but ‘why’ they believe it. The Bring It format mines for the personal experiences that inform our convictions and encourages a more trans-partisan outlook focused on issues rather than party affiliations.
The concept is quite simple: one table, two people, and a flower that becomes the barometer for personal political identity when participants move it left, center or right along the table. Unlike many discussions about contentious issues, Bring It conversations don’t devolve into sparring matches, but rather are intentional opportunities to understand someone else’s point of view. They are subversive in their demand that each participant cut the rhetoric and stop relying on third-hand information as though it gives license to authority. The result is a transformative approach to political dialogue and personal revelations about our own beliefs and predispositions.
As the 2016 presidential race shapes up to be one of the most brutal battles the country has seen in decades, Bring It couldn’t be more timely and necessary. The project started when partisanship was already ugly, but now it has grown dangerous, rife with racist, xenophobic, and nationalist overtones. Candidates are using profanity to launch personal attacks and a brand of fear mongering now masquerades as legitimate concern. We cannot confuse dialogue with diatribe and expect to foster a healthy democracy. Nor can we demonize the political ‘other’ and expect to successfully navigate the socio-economic and demographic shifts of the 21st century.
It is tempting to dismiss the ‘other’ as ignorant, selfish, elitist; politically correct… but in doing so we create space for destructive elements to thrive. Frustration and fear easily morph into anger, allowing instability to take over. Bring It to The Table inspires people to address our differences and acknowledge that which we don’t understand. The project recognizes that we cannot fight fear with a closed fist, but have to approach our adversaries with an open hand. Our Table Talks train people to engage with the intent to listen and probe, rather than refute and debunk someone else’s beliefs. This requires discipline and genuine curiosity, so we can enter conversations that invite discourse rather than further entrenching ourselves in feuding camps. Ultimately, the project is designed to illuminate the role each of us plays in diffusing hyper-partisanship, citizen-to-citizen, peer-to-peer, family member to family member.
Too often, when people think of politics today, shouting matches on large stages come to mind. The Table Talk format brings political discourse back to where people feel comfortable: their own tables. This expressive, interpersonal format wrests political deliberation away from the hands of big party leaders and partisan pundits and returns it to the personal. We might not be able to control what goes on in Washington, but we can impact the immediate world around us. As citizens, we have to demand more from our leaders and ourselves, because we play a vital role in the tone of the conversation. There is no better way to hold our leaders accountable than to lead by example, proving that civility can and will prevail.
For more information about Bring It to The Table, to purchase a DVD or streaming license, or to host an event on your campus or in your community, please visit: bringit2thetable.org or contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.