Citizen Salon: inequality, politics saved for dessert in new series

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Guests discuss inequality over dinner. Image courtesy: Rachel Brittin

by Katherine Rivard

“I’m kind of an optimistic person. As long as we’re in this beautiful place, let’s let go of our cynicism and talk to each other,” began Philippa Hughes, the brains behind a new string of free events brought to life thanks to the support of American University’s School of Public Affairs.

On March 26, The Phillips Collection hosted one of the events, with a goal to create space for discourse and stir up conversation amongst people of all beliefs and backgrounds, keeping the hostile political climate at bay, at least for an evening.

The venues are strategic: welcoming restored houses or home-like buildings. Nothing is meant to feel forced or unnatural: the events are an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas. Awe and beauty of the surroundings create curiosity, sparking conversation, which in turn are meant to lead to connections with others and greater empathy.

Guests walk through The Phillips Collection exhibits prior to dinner at the Citizen Salon. Image courtesy: Rachel Brittin

The idea for the events started as dinner parties at Hughes’s home after the 2016 presidential election. Feeling that people needed to not just talk about talking about important issues facing the country, but to actually start talking, she invited people with opposing opinions over for a meal, then spoke and listened.

The conversations are not meant to change anyone’s viewpoints, but to instead create a better understanding of others and their thoughts. Speaking with each other, instead of only listening to the media, people are often able to find shared values.

Staff paired conservatives with liberals — all strangers who had somehow been identified through Hughes’s network of friends and acquaintances or individuals who had reached out to her directly. They waded through the museum, each pair discussing whatever they liked, though instructions and a conversation topic were provided to get things rolling. The crowd was a mix of all ages, men and women, and their conversations ranged from their teenage children at home, to growing up in Miami, to being unable to identify which works were by Jackson Pollock. The hope was that curiosity and interest in someone else would spark meaningful, natural conversations. And politics? Well, that was the one topic guests were asked to not speak about.

The goal was to create space for discourse and stir up conversation. Image courtesy: Rachel Brittin

Dinner was the main affair, and beautifully set.

Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection, highlighted the significance of using the art gallery to spur conversation: “[The artwork] Slows you down. Makes you self-conscious. Makes you ask the right questions.” Standing beside a stranger with a different background, visitors see the pictures in a whole new light, often pushing themselves out of their comfort zones.

Two experts, Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, and Adam Ruben, a director at Economic Security Project, shared their thoughts and potential solutions to socioeconomic inequality in America, as dinner was served family style: delicious bowls of macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes bizarrely contrasting the high-brow setting.

Regrettably, what might have been an interesting discussion felt forced: two white men discussing the plight of the poor, the stigma of race, and how to move forward, surrounded by wine, candlelight, and wood panelling.

Gentle lighting fell across the dark, wood paneled rooms, fresh flowers lay amidst wine glasses along the long dining tables, and two Joan Miro’s framed the scene. Despite this picturesqueness, walking across D.C. to get home that evening meant walking away from these comforts and back into the real world, filled with the social inequality that can’t be fixed by fancy dinner parties or intellectual talks alone. Hughes may have been able to hold the group in disbelief, away from the cynicism, while in the museum’s beauty, but back on the street, the real world rushes in.

Even when surrounded by millions of dollars of art, talk is cheap. How participants at the dinner continue to actively engage in conversations with those of differing opinions and put their words into action through voting and civic participation will be where real change occurs.

Those interested in joining the next dinner may reach out to Philippa (p@curiosityconnects.us).