It’s dinnertime in Santa Fe, N.M., and six people gather around a long black table, waiting to dig into a meal of grilled chicken and shredded squash. At the far end, from a large TV screen, the rest of the guests look on â€“ from a living room in Karachi, Pakistan.
Over the next hour or so, between forkfuls of chicken and cholay, a chickpea dish popular in Pakistan, the two groups of dinner/breakfast guests (it’s 8 a.m. in Pakistan) will discuss a range of topics, from last spring’s drone missile attacks to the impact of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement to Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket player-turned-politician.
This sharing of food and views across the globe is the inspiration of Eric Maddox, founder and director of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, based in Santa Fe.
“Consume knowledge” is the project’s slogan. “Talk with your mind full.”
The idea behind the year-old project, Mr. Maddox says, is to bring together everyday people from different countries â€“ most often, the United States and countries it is in conflict with â€“ to share a meal in the hopes of breaking down cultural barriers and misconceptions.
“It’s harder to ignore people, vilify people, or harm people that you’ve broken bread with,” Maddox says over a shared bowl of brown rice and vegetables at the Flying Star Cafe in Santa Fe.
So far, those gathering around virtual dinner tables have included residents of Ciudad JuÃ¡rez, Mexico; Kampala, Uganda; and Karachi, Pakistan. Social advocates, educators, filmmakers, students, and others have participated.
“It’s important to have a diverse range of views around the table,” Maddox says.
He seeks out participants in countries that have strained relations with the US. “We’re probably not going to have a dinner with Switzerland anytime soon,” he jokes.
Openness and mutual respect are essential to the success of the conversation.
“You have to be aware of how your own personal narrative can affect your conversation with one another,” Maddox says.
Maddox’s desire to help heal misunderstandings that lead to conflict between countries, spurred by his strong sense of justice and a belief in the power of food to build community, led him to create the Virtual Dinner Guest Project last spring.
Since then, he has been spending most of his waking hours trying to get the project off the ground, networking with everyone from State Department officials to overseas community-based organizations to US university professors to drum up support, contacts, funding, and venues.