Designing Democracy at the Dinner Table

Illustration by Lizzie Oh
Left: Co-facilitators former frog Sahana Kumar and current frog Hailey Stewart prepare for guests. Right: Guests from our fifth dinner get to know each other in pairs before coming back together as a group to discuss how events like Charlottesville have affected their lives. (Photos by Maykel Loomans)
Map of where guests have signed up to attend or host a dinner

Feasting On Empathy

Ultimately, MADA is a way of building empathy within a community, one conversation at a time. Because I work at frog, a human-centered design and strategy firm, I understand how essential empathy is in creating meaningful, memorable experiences. At a MADA dinner, we use design research techniques to help one another understand the real needs, behaviors and motivations that often inform our politics — not force anyone to come around to any one way of thinking.

Guests from our third dinner in San Francisco participate in the spectrum activity to demonstrate where they stand politically. (Photo by J.T. Trollman)
Left: Dario and Jan were MADA guests who later hosted their own dinner. Right: Guests from our 6th dinner make apple pie tartlets together. (Photos by J.T. Trollman)

1. An Invitation is a Matter of Trust

Some think MADA is about tricking both sides into public vilification, while others think it’s too soft. We’ve built trust by recruiting first-time guests by word-of-mouth and keeping the conversation respectful at each dinner. A year in, our work fostering a balanced set of perspectives and remaining neutral as facilitators has really paid off, and we’ve established relationships with a wide range of political organizations.

2. Be Prepared for Anything

While we do vet each of our guests before dinner, bringing together eight strangers with fundamentally different political ideologies requires setting the tone, and providing tools to reset the conversation if needed. Before any discussion, we set ground rules and have noisemakers or cards to flip over to signal when moderation is needed. We’re ready with dozens of questions and prompts, but allow room for our guests to guide the conversation.

3. Civic Engagement Comes in Many Forms

For Tria and I, MADA is one of our ways to engage. We’re not experienced political organizers, but it has made use of our skills and passions, which is bringing people together through food and conversation. Some of our dinner guests may look to voting, protesting, donating or even running for office as their chosen civic duty. No matter how they do it, however, we’ve found people like being free to engage in their chosen ways.

4. Keep the Conversation — and Attendees — Moving

Our guests love breaking the ice by cooking dishes they’ll later eat together. We also use activities to keep us all up and engaged. In one, we ask attendees to react to statements like, “I will never change my mind about gun control.” Guests position themselves across the room to represent a spectrum of ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’. This showcases nuance in beliefs and becomes fodder for discussion.

5. Don’t Expect to Change Minds

Our goal is not to spark debate. We focus on understanding each other as people first — no real-time fact-checking or prepared arguments necessary. So while our guests’ fundamental belief systems are unchanged, attendees tell us they’re able to better understand how backgrounds and experiences shape worldviews. The result is real context for issues too often solely discussed as political agendas.

Left: Tria and Justine facilitating the second MADA dinner. (Photo by J.T. Trollman) Right: At MADA dinners, there is no shortage of laughter. (Photo by Maykel Loomans)

What’s Next for MADA

We’ve always envisioned MADA as best experienced as a dinner in person, but we acknowledge its limitations to scale. Currently, we’re working with Facebook to translate the MADA approach on the platform through an online discussion group so that we can reach more people, in more places.



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frog is a leading global creative consultancy, part of Capgemini Invent. We strive to shape a regenerative future that is both sustainable and inclusive.