Community Conversations: Bringing People Together

Like many Americans, I was surprised by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Although I’m a Democrat, during the lead up to the election I consumed media from left- and right-leaning outlets to try to understand the deepening divide—and the anger, fear, and frustration voiced by voters of all political stripes—across the country. Despite my research, I maintained certain assumptions about what the results would be, and I even wondered how Republican voters would react when their candidate lost, prompting me to begin exploring ways to heal the rift after the election.

My first, pre-election attempt at reconciliation was to co-curate an art show called US + THEM = U.S.: Finding Common Ground in a Divided Nation, which I’d begun planning with a small team in the early fall of 2016, but which would open one week before the inauguration. Finding common ground in a divided nation took on new meaning after the election results came in.

Breaking bread together seemed like a good start to closing that gap. One week after the 2016 election, I began inviting voters from both sides of the aisle over for dinner at my house and continued hosting meals with guests who held different political opinions from my own for the next two years. I wanted to engage in difficult conversations face-to-face and ask my own questions, to dig beyond the filtered observations and analysis offered by journalists, pundits, and thought leaders. At each meal, I experimented with ways to improve our interactions. When we spoke face-to-face, we began to see each other as humans and not as avatars or data points. Curiosity about one another led to more empathy and stronger relationships. Art emerged as one of the most effective tools for framing and facilitating dialogue.

The small dinners cooked by me in my home culminated nearly two years later in October 2018 when I partnered with American University School of Public Affairs to organize a dinner for 50 people from across the political spectrum, and an art exhibit I curated in the Heurich House Museum called A [Good] American. Before taking their seats at the dinner table, guests were invited to view artworks created by seven local artists reflecting on what it meant to be a good American. Art brought together curious people who would not normally have met and became the starting point for dialogue. Using art to frame and facilitate a difficult conversation while sharing a meal became the basis for Looking For America, a partnership between New American Economy, a bi-partisan group advocating for better immigration policy,, and American University’s School of Public Affairs, which teaches civil discourse as a foundation of democracy. 

Looking For America will include art exhibits featuring local artists and dinners with guests from across the political spectrum. Local artists will create works in response to this question: “What does it mean to be American in your community?” Volunteers from each city will undergo light training in civil discourse led by AU’s School of Public Affairs. The volunteers will then facilitate conversation at a dinner for 50 people from across the political spectrum. Dinner guests will also be invited to participate in the Tenement Museum’s online exhibit Your Story, Our Story, which “highlights stories of immigration, migration, and cultural identity, past and present, through objects and traditions.” We plan to create a toolkit and model for effective civil discourse based on what we learn from participants across the country and share it with communities across the United States.

The project will take place in several communities across the country, including Siouxland, where we are partnering with Erica DeLeon, Executive Director of One Siouxland. One Siouxland recently received a grant from the Missouri River Historic Development that will ensure all artists receive a stipend for participating in the exhibit. The exhibit and dinner will take place in fall 2019, after which the art will be on display long-term at the Betty Strong Encounter Center. If you would like to exhibit your work, join the dinner, or volunteer to be a facilitator, please email

One Siouxland is a tri-state, multisector initiative working to ensure all who call Siouxland ‘home’ can meaningfully contribute to the economic, civic, and cultural fabric of our community. To accomplish that mission, newcomer leaders, long-time residents, business leaders, governmental officials, and local and national experts team up to develop and implement sustainable programs that help newcomers acclimate and thrive.  Partners additionally utilize economic indicators, Census data and local success stories.

By Philippa P.B. Hughes, a social sculptor and creative strategist.


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