In her work at the University of Pennsylvania, Laura Henderson travels the globe organizing programs that bring together researchers and activists to affect policy change. The projects she runs focus on issues such as democratization, freedom of expression, and the promotion of human rights in countries where democracy is threatened and civil liberties are curtailed. But after November 8, Henderson came to a startling realization: She began to see frightening parallels between the political situations in the countries she was working and the emerging political context in the U.S.
“November 9th was a rude awakening for a lot of people doing this kind of work,” Henderson says. “We realized that we had taken a lot of things for granted in our own country that we now need to focus on.”
Like many young progressives after the election, Henderson made phone calls and attended marches, and had one despairing conversation after another with her friends. But she knew, if she was going to get through the next four years, that she needed to find another way. So Henderson and three friends came up with an idea they hope will prove both widespread and long-lasting (and fun): Dine 4 Democracy, a volunteer-hosted dinner series to raise money for organizations working on causes being threatened in Trump’s America. (The Citizen is partnering with Dine 4 Democracy starting in March.)
The way it works is this: Dine 4 Democracy will pick a theme each month and a nonprofit that works in that field. This month, the issue of choice was healthcare and the organization was FamiliesUSA (a nonprofit which advocates for affordable healthcare); in March, they are focusing on immigration policy and providing a list of local immigrant rights groups. You sign up to host a dinner party with several friends, asking each to bring a suggested donation of $15 that will then go to that organization (or a different one of your choosing). Dine 4 Democracy will provide talking points on the issue, discussion questions, information about the groups involved and other materials as needed. You provide the home, and the food—take out, potluck, cocktails…whatever.
Henderson says they hope some part of the evening is spent in a discussion about politics and social action, perhaps by bringing in a guest speaker or writing letters to Congresspeople—but it is not a requirement. (You can find more of the particulars here.) “You don’t need to be a political junkie, experienced activist or anything else,” she wrote in an email to friends announcing the project. “You just need to be someone who wants to become more engaged in issues and eat dinner.”
In February, Dine 4 Democracy launched in Philadelphia and several other cities where Henderson and her partners have friends, including Washington, D.C., New York, Durham, and Fort Lauderdale. So far, eight dinners with a total of around 80 people have taken place, raising nearly $1,000 for FamiliesUSA. (One also took place in London, focusing on issues related to Brexit.) The hope is that this will have a ripple effect: If one person hosts 12 dinners in 2017, with eight people at each event, they will raise $1,500. If nine more people host dinners, that’s $15,000, with 80 people involved. If their friends start hosting dinners, and tell their friends all over the country to host dinners, those numbers get exponentially larger. At some point, it becomes a movement, built not just on anger and political activism, but on joy and camaraderie, too.
Henderson, who turns 29 next month, has a vastly different view of the world from most of the people she knows. She works with activists in countries where rights are severely restricted, and knows the struggle that brings. Since the election, she has colleagues in Turkey who have warned her to be prepared for a turn towards totalitarianism. She, in turn, has tried to warn her friends and family, to talk about the worst case scenario. “But I don’t think they are prepared to hear things like that,”she says.
She sees Dine 4 Democracy as a way to allow people to slowly enter into those conversations. “I wanted to do dinners as soft engagement, for people who don’t think of themselves as so political—they go to a march, but don’t know how to engage in their everyday life,” Henderson says. “It’s a space for sustained and positive conversation. We want to connect this local conversation to the larger issues in our nation.”
Henderson says that the election made her realize how little she has participated in local civic engagement; since then, she has started attending community meetings and other events. Dine 4 Democracy grew out of the the momentum of the Women’s March, as a way for Henderson and a few friends—including Paul Rothman and Dean Jackson, both based in D.C.—to continue their own personal activism, and spread it to their friends and beyond. They announced it in January, and since then, she has spent all her free time “bothering the hell out of anyone who said they would do dinners.”
Henderson sees Dine 4 Democracy as “soft engagement, for people who don’t think of themselves as so political—they go to a march, but don’t know how to engage in their everyday life,” she says. “It’s a space for sustained and positive conversation. We want to connect this local conversation to the larger issues in our nation.”
For Henderson, that has meant that in February, she is partnering with several friends on variations of the Dine 4 Democracy theme—a brunch, a poker game, a dinner at different homes in different parts of the city, where she’s helping with the cooking. (She also already has two lined up for March.) The two so far have been different: At one, they talked about the issue of affordable healthcare, and why it matters from a human rights perspective; at the second, the conversation took a more nuanced turn, analyzing economic incentives within the healthcare industry and the tradeoffs between policies that focus more on choice than access.
At each dinner, Henderson asked someone to commit to hosting another dinner, in an upcoming month, so it will hopefully take off organically on its own. Already, Dine4Democracy’s Facebook group has 650 members around the country; if even a fraction of those jump on board, it could rapidly escalate within months.
Starting next month, as part of The Citizen’s partnership with Dine 4 Democracy, we will highlight the issues they’ve selected and the organizations they are supporting. You can sign up to host a dinner here. And you’ll be able to download the Dine 4 Democracy informational materials, which we’ll keep up on The Citizen so you can revisit them at any time.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up to host a March dinner now. Your democracy—and your friends—will thank you.Header photo: Dorota Trupp, via Flickr