An Interview with Lennon Flowers

Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and executive director of the Dinner Party, a platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings to find peer community and build lasting relationships using the age old practice of breaking bread, and the co-founder of the People’s Supper, an organization that creates tools, resources, and storytelling content people can adapt to their own communities and offers regular trainings and one-on-one coaching for folks who need a sounding board or a thought partner as they come up against particular barriers.

Read more about her work and ideas below in an interview between Lennon Flowers and PACH Director Crystal Clarke.


Crystal Clarke: Alright so my first question for you Lennon is just to tell me about the work that you do in your own words.

Lennon Flowers: So our work with the People’s Supper began in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. We actually started and were in conversation before Election Day, with the expectation that it would go differently. And we wanted to make sure that before there was a moment where the country was asked to move on, there was a moment for truth-telling and for reckoning with the pain in that moment. Obviously, things took a very different kind of turn. At that juncture, we recognized that part of the problem was that we live in bubbles of sameness. And that for many people, it’s easy to make an enemy of someone you don’t know: someone who you only ever read about, if that, and with whom you don’t have moments for real connection, real understanding. And simultaneously, that there’s a responsibility before you ask somebody to bridge—that there was a lot of healing that needed to be done. That pain needs witnesses.

Part of what we wanted to do was to bring people together—particularly folks who were most victimized by a lot of the language and attack rhetoric certainly coming from, at the time, the president-elect, and who were feeling acute fear. There were a lot of folks who needed a space to light candles and do some healing work within as a first step, and that there would then be opportunities over the weeks, months, and years to come to sit down across difference and hear one another’s stories. And so that began a really long journey and all kinds of pivots as we began to uncover some of the sources of naiveté with which we had gone into that work, and to really wrestle in deep ways with, “What is the relationship between personal relationship-building and finding those moments of deep connection where we can further advance trust and systems-change?” For a lot of folks, and particularly those who have experienced marginalization, they’re right to be skeptical of any invitation that says, “Come tell us your story,” without any expectation of change. And so a lot of our work over the last few years has evolved to working with local communities to understand, what is the unique pain point that’s facing your community? Sometimes that’s within an institution—say a workplace, or san academic institution—and sometimes it’s people who live in the same city or town, and are looking for ways to better connect across racial, political, religious, or generational difference, you name it. There’s a lot of different ways by which we separate one another.


“For a lot of folks, and particularly those who have experienced marginalization, they’re right to be skeptical of any invitation that says, ‘Come tell us your story,’ without any expectation of change.”


And so the kind of questions we ask are, who is not in relationship with whom, whose voices go unheard, and why, and what can we do to change the faces of who’s showing up, What are the outcomes that they can expect on the other side of the process? What is the journey of learning and unlearning that we need to go through together? And what is the role that trust plays in how we can actually do the work that needs to be done here?

C: Gotcha. It’s pretty clear from your layout of the work that you do, but if you could rephrase or restate how you believe your work fosters connection and common humanity, what would you say?

L: Yeah. So I think there are two primary things. We use the oldest technologies that we have available, which aren’t technologies at all. The first is the dinner table. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, the experience of sharing a meal, and gathering around a table with people you love is something that’s familiar. Our online lives have made us constantly primed for outrage. A shared meal creates a feeling of intimacy that helps us soften, even just a little bit, and to establish a deeper connection with people.

The other mechanism is story. We know enough about how human brains work to know that there are a lot of things we can’t argue our way out of. And the thing that does, at times, change minds, is an encounter with somebody that is contrary to what you assumed or expected. So a lot of our work is about getting beyond the things that are actually arguable and into the space of what is inarguable, and that’s our stories and lived experiences. Our stories differ in huge ways based on the bodies we live in and the backgrounds that we come from, particularly when it comes to experiences of racism and other forms of marginalization. It’s only by listening to those stories that you begin to appreciate those differences. And simultaneously, that there are all sorts of ways in which our stories and experiences transcend the labels and identities and assumptions that we make of one another. We are each so much more than what is visible to the eye. So we use personal stories to humanize one another, and to surface action steps we can take, individually and as a community, to ensure everyone is able to experience real belonging.


“A lot of our work is about getting beyond the things that are actually arguable and into the space of what is inarguable, and that’s our stories and lived experiences.”


C: Right. There are two things that stand out from what you just shared. Just this idea of needing a vehicle that softens us. And it makes me think of, in the acceptance speech that Biden gave, he talked about lowering the temperature. And it feels around like, doing the work that softens us or getting in the door where we’re softened. Can you speak a little more about how that’s a first step, if that’s how you see it, or the necessity of that?

L: Yeah. And I should be very clear that I think that is only a first step. But I think it is a critical one. And it is not to say that we need be avoidant of hard conversations. I think a lot of the problems that we are living with are born of all of the things that have gone unspoken and a failure to reckon honestly with our histories, especially when it comes to racism in America. In order to have those conversations, in order to get to a place where we can have more intelligent arguments, you have to do as Biden said in that speech. You have to lower the temperature. You have to be in a place of deeper trust with one another, where I am capable of seeing you as a full, complicated human just as you are capable of seeing me as the same. And then we are actually in a place where we can do hard work together. We believe that social change moves at the speed of relationships, and that relationships move at the speed of trust. And so our work is around that first step: How do we build the trust that’s necessary for us to do meaningful work together?

C: Yeah, absolutely. And the role stories can play and how powerful stories can be in doing that work, too, isn’t lost on me. Can you speak a little bit more of the power of sharing our stories? I think you spoke of it as the stuff you can’t argue on. Which, I love that. Can you talk a little more about the role stories play?

L: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of my work over the last decade or so has been anchored in grief. And I think one of the things that you see when you work with grieving people is that grief can be at times a really powerful means of forging connection with people whom you would never otherwise expect to connect. When you find somebody else who also lost their brother, or who knows what it is to love someone who’s battling addiction—the experiences we never ever talk about—it can be amazing generative tissue for building real relationships. I think in this moment (thank you Brené Brown), vulnerability is in vogue. And it plays a really deep role in changing how we see ourselves and one another. Can you get to the kinds of stories that transcend the superficial? We spend most of our time talking about the wrong things, or projecting visions of ourselves and of each other that are fundamentally anchored in half-truths. Listening to others’ stories can also inspire us to reexamine the underlying ‘why’s’ that led to a particular encounter or experience. For instance, I know what it’s like to be a caregiver, but I don’t know what it’s like to be talked down to by a racist doctor while caregiving for a dying parent. So our stories point us to deeper sources of systemic injustice. When you see the road that a person has walked, you also develop a deeper level of empathy and understanding for them. I might not agree with you, but I can understand the process by which you arrived there. I think that matters.

C: Absolutely. That definitely resonates with me, the recognition that all of us have a road behind us, and how that road at the very least leads to understanding, which is invaluable.

Could you share: What are specific strategies your work calls on that brings people together across difference or divides? So perhaps maybe strategies that are used at the table or how the table itself is a strategy.

L: Yeah, absolutely. So around the table itself, we focus on questions that every single person can answer, that aren’t reflections or dependent on your level of education or your knowledge on a particular subject, that are really again about surfacing experiences and getting into that space that is inarguable. Oftentimes you think that if you bring people together in a room, then connection will ensue. And there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. We set up the conditions in which we can actually be honest with one another. Because there are all kinds of very good reasons why I might be skeptical of why you deserve my story and is it safe for me to share it. And so that’s a lot of our work developed by a partner and colleague at the Faith Matters Network, Micky ScottBey Jones, who is the author of something called An Invitation to Brave Space. For all of our attention to “safe space”, the reality is for a lot of people, it’s elusory. It’s kind of a lie. For people who’ve experienced marginalization, the reality is there’s no such thing as a safe space, so let’s not pretend. And for white people, we often confuse safe spaces with spaces of comfort. Our stories are not always comfortable. How do you create the conditions where we can be uncomfortable together and let that be OK?


“We believe that social change moves at the speed of relationships, and that relationships move at the speed of trust. And so our work is around that first step: How do we build the trust that’s necessary for us to do meaningful work together?”


The good news is that we’ve found that some of that doesn’t depend on dinner tables to quite the extent that I thought it did before the pandemic. It turns out eating on the internet is pretty gross. Fortunately, our ability to connect meaningfully and share stories isn’t dependent on being around one shared table, which is good news for us all.

C: Oh, just the strategies you guys call on that bring people together across differences.

L: The other part is not just what happens when people get there, but how do you actually get them there? And I think particularly when it comes to bringing people together across difference where there are differences in power present. Or political differences that leave one or both groups believing that there is an agenda behind it, and that that agenda is about, “How do I change your mind?” Right, so one of the things that we heard and saw a lot in our work early on was that the folks who were quickest to raise their hand and say “Sign me up,” were all white women who liked to hike. That became kind of our shorthand.

And you know, I’m a white woman who likes to hike and lives in Los Angeles. I fit every stereotype. But we were hearing from people who wanted to hear an experience from folks who’d experienced marginalization: They wanted to sit down with an immigrant, preferably undocumented; they wanted to sit down with a person of color; they wanted to sit down with a Muslim American; and they wanted to hear stories of victimization in America and exercise their best pity face and spirt of compassion and experience a feel-good moment to prove that their values aligned with their politics. They wanted to take a selfie and then leave. The reality is that change doesn’t work like that. And change doesn’t happen in one night around a dinner table.


“Grief can be at times a really powerful means of forging connection with people whom you would never otherwise expect to connect. When you find somebody else who also lost their brother, or who knows what it is to love someone who’s battling addiction — the experiences we never ever talk about — it can be amazing generative tissue for building real relationships.”


So we kind of abandoned that model and instead began working with communities not with one supper, but over time. Over time, we begin to hear many different stories, and to build trust as a muscle. Our friend Marc Freedman at Encore talks about the fact that a lot of things parade themselves as community, but are actually only the aroma of connection. That aroma of connection can be established in one night; real community and the ability to develop the kind of musculature between people that’s necessary in order to get into those hard conversations, in order to get to how do we actually change the underlying conditions here and what is ours to change: all of that requires time. And so a lot of our work happens before you actually sit down. It’s the advance team of, “How do we think differently about whose voices are necessary to be around this table?” And how do we create an invitation that they would want to say yes to? You first need to understand all of the reasons somebody might say no to your invitation. It also means changing who’s doing the inviting. A lot of what we end up doing is kind of an organizing strategy on a local level of identifying who the influencers are in a community. And they might be people with titles behind their name in professional roles. They might be the grandmas. They might be the people who are deeply trusted within a particular social network: “when this person invites me to come, I can trust that there’s a good reason for me to be there.” It’s all too easy to flake out, to stay behind our screens where it feels safe and protected, where we can volley outrage at each other without looking each other in the eye. You’re more likely to show up if someone you trust says, “I want you at this table. I think your voice matters.”

C: Ah, there are so many things that you just said that are really resonating with me. I mean, I know we’re talking about it at the table, but the nature of the invitation in general seems to span across like—how are we inviting people to conversations? Who is doing the inviting? What’s the perceived agenda? All of those things I think have been real barriers to bridging differences because of our own (our own being the people who are interested in doing the work) lack of reflection on those key factors. Oftentimes I think doing the work of connecting across difference seems like what you just spoke to, this superficial process. You mentioned the aroma, like the aroma community. And I’m so glad that you mentioned that this is not a one and done deal. It’s a process to build the trust and all of the groundwork that then fosters connection. But you have to do the work first. You don’t just jump in and have a connected communities. Or have community in general.

L: Totally. And that really requires localizing your invitation and understanding that just as no two people exist in monolith, neither does any individual community. We presume that if you’re operating in an organizational context with a really smart and thoughtful mission that is absolutely important to healing a divided nation (and I say this as someone who has been guilty of what I’m describing) that that will be enough. But you often end up getting a group that’s self-selecting. No one comes because they’re interested in The People’s Supper; the invitation has to speak to their experience, and their particular lives. An example in our work in Creede and Lake City, two towns in rural Colorado with a combined population that is about half the size of my high school. This is a community that’s high up in the mountains. Winters are hard. It’s extremely remote. You’re 90 minutes from the closest big grocery store. So your survival actually depends on other people. And there is a sense of cultural pride in folks’ willingness to take care of one another. When any baby is born, the whole town knows it,and you can expect a bunch of knitted blankets to arrive on your doorstep. This is a place that is physically beautiful, and so people on both the left and right take pride in this as a place of healing. They recognize that in this moment of fractured Facebook feeds where we are rewarded for saying the worst things to one another, that there is a consequence when you then see somebody at a grocery store. ou can’t really avoid it for folks within these communities. And so that’s the invitation. It’s not bridging divides in the abstract. It’s, “How can we be the place we all want to be?” We have to take time to really listen to what is being said and felt here in your own community, not in our headlines.


“That aroma of connection can be established in one night; real community and the ability to develop the kind of musculature between people that’s necessary in order to get into those hard conversations, in order to get to how do we actually change the underlying conditions here and what is ours to change: all of that requires time.”


C: Exactly. This understanding of what it truly means to belong and held accountable and be accountable for others. I want to ask what your thoughts are on how your work addresses the stuff that gets in the way of building connection, of building community, fostering connection across difference. And oftentimes that conversation is around structural injustices that make it really hard to do this kind of work.

How do you think your work relates to addressing the injustices in society that get in the way of building connections?

L: I’m going to use the example of some of our work in Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie was a town that was ranked in a USA Today article in 2017 as the worst place in America for African Americans to live. This wasn’t a scientific study, but what it did was uncover a lot of things that had been true for a long time. We were talking early in this conversation about how good we are at avoiding hard subject matter and presuming that you had the same access to opportunities that I had, which is at the root of a lot of our mythologies and our culture of individualism. So we began working with the mayor’s office in Erie and 80 civic leaders. They were very intentionally selected as a multiracial group of folks who, across their respective networks, actually were genuinely representative of the voices within that city. Not all voices of which were equally heard. There were profound imbalances of power born of structural isolation and segregation in housing, and discrimination in the workplace, and inequities in their education system, and on and on and on.

We brought this group of people through a series of several different suppers, a combination of affinity suppers among others who shared their identity and bridging suppers across difference. And out of the stories that were surfaced, the participants were able to identify work that needed to be done. Because it’s one thing to talk about discrimination in the workplace in an abstract sense. If you’ve never been discriminated against, you can reject that as a problem sect. Until you hear somebody’s story that actually is reflective of that problem. And so part of what we were doing through that process was widening the coalition of people that were invested in changing those problem sets. So fast forward to today, earlier this Fall, the mayor’s office hosted a press conference. And they had a new workforce development initiative that will include loans for black-owned businesses. Because when you actually dig into the data, there were profound differences, as we see with COVID deaths, that are patterned in ways that reflect underlying inequities, that there are patterns to the small businesses that are closing right now.


“In some instances, the solution lies in policies, and sometimes that work is cultural, inviting people to examine their own stories, not just listen to others’. And certainly that’s the work for a lot of white people in this moment in America, who have taken for granted the circumstances and opportunity that have been thrust their way, without seeing the underlying structural inequities that have elevated their lives as they repressed others.”


The press conference also included the launch of a new Erie Promise Initiative, which will be a multimillion dollar scholarship fund by which every local residence will get access to free two and four year college educations. There’s an enormous amount of work that must be done on a policy level and will be the work not of a series of suppers, and certainly not of one supper, but of years of working together. The work that those years will necessitate will require a lot of hard conversations and we’ll disagree about how resources are allocated, and some of the messiness of bureaucracy and interpersonal relationships that get in the way of any project, and any project team. And in order to get through those messy situations, we actually need better trust with one another, otherwise we’ll walk away. So that was kind of our work. And in some instances, the solution lies in policies, and sometimes that work is cultural, inviting people to examine their own stories, not just listen to others’. And certainly that’s the work for a lot of white people in this moment in America, who have taken for granted the circumstances and opportunity that have been thrust their way, without seeing the underlying structural inequities that have elevated their lives as they repressed others.

C: There are so many thoughts that you had. What’s standing out to me a lot, and also why I particularly wanted to sit down with you, too, is that your work seems to really get at the fundamental root of the goals that we have in terms of seeing change across difference. Especially when we talk about structural change, societal injustices, it can often seem a vast, huge… These systems that are not related to us but at the core they are a collection of human beings. And if we’re working with a collection of human beings, trust-building is at the root of any change. And so it just seems that the work that you do is fundamental to affecting change.

I want to zoom out a bit to talk more about your personal journey and what’s brought you to this work. So is there an experience or a story or an event in your life that has really shaped your interest in what you’re doing today? What’s your ‘why,’ so to speak?

L: Totally. So I think there are two pieces to that. One, I grew up between a bunch of different worlds. My parents divorced when I was young, my mom had grown up in deep poverty in Eastern North Carolina. We were a middle class family. he remarried when I was in elementary school, to a guy who was an Episcopalian, and was the brother of an Episcopalian minister. And it was a very different kind of world from the one that I was familiar with. And my dad was a struggling small business owner and Republican who also named me after John Lennon, the Beatle. And so I’m well aware of contradictions. And I think a lot of that kind of education necessitated—the shorthand term for it is just code-switching. But I had to pay attention to a lot of different stories and voices, and to understand the very different challenge sets that animated them, and value sets. And fundamentally being in relationship across a range of differences that made it very difficult to demonize or dismiss. So that was part of it. And so, fast-forward to 2016 and I think the reason my friend Jen Bailey at the Faith Matters Network and I hopped on a phone call 2 or 3 days after the election was because, for me it was personal, as it was for so many people. For me, I could believe that my dad, who was a Gary Johnson supporter who turned eventually Trump supporter, could think that Islam was an evil religion because he did not know anyone who was Muslim. And I knew that people could think that my dad, who is an Economist reader, and also somebody who couldn’t afford health insurance for most of my life, was a dumb illiterate racist. There were complexities to both stories that were missing from one another. And so I wanted a mechanism of just basically fixing my dad. And then I think I realized—it took me a long time in doing this work—that I was also the one that needed a lot of fixing, particularly as it related to race and racial injustice.

A lot of my own personal narrative was born of knowing poor people growing up, and with that came a strong attachment to certain class identities. What I didn’t understand fully was the way in which whiteness had also played into my story. Even as a kid who went to public schools. But for all of the reasons that we’ve been talking about in this conversation, connections or lack thereof are often born of structural realities. And so I needed to really deeply examine that. I think that that continues to be so central: Our agendas are often about how do I change you, rather than what is the work that I need to do and what are the assumptions that I have carried that demand deeper interrogation.


“We have kind of outsourced the role of being human to professionals. And we forget how much work happens at breakfast tables and at dinner tables and at conversations with one another.”


C: Yeah. It’s a dance, it’s a dynamic that oftentimes we’re pointing outward and not looking inward. There’s something that you mentioned about your father about the complexities, and it just struck me, too, the word understanding the complexities of identities is where the humanization is, that’s where the human is. It’s in the complexities, not the broad strokes.

My last question is essentially one of legacy. I’m wondering what change in the world you hope your work leaves behind.

L: Oh. [laughs]

C: Yeah, big question.

L: You know, I hope that we added a little more positive connection and a little less suck.

[laughter]

C: Yes, simply put.

L: I think the work that we’re still wrestling with, in a big way, is this knowledge, and that’s why I’ve loved the company of the Builders, and learning about your work and others. Because we have kind of outsourced the role of being human to professionals. And we forget how much work happens at breakfast tables and at dinner tables and at conversations with one another. And that a lot of this is around the mindsets and assumptions that we carry of one another. So I think this kind of question of like, what actually leads to culture change, but in a way that isn’t born of a lexicon, you know, cooked up in ivory tower institutions, right, or whatever elitism I exist within in professional circles, but that actually speaks to humans where they are. I want to amplify the social technology that is available to us all that does not depend on a device, or on a particular level of schooling, that is part of something that we all share and can deploy to heal whatever fracture or fissure exists between us interpersonally and between us on a macro-, communal scale.

C: Totally, totally. It resonates deeply, too, because it’s a mindset that I share, too, where it’s not a teaching to be human, it’s a reminder of what we naturally have the capacity to do. And so I love what you said about how we outsource what it means to be human and our job is to kind of reconnect to that.

To learn more about Lennon Flowers’s work and organizations, visit the People’s Supper or the Dinner Party, or follow her on Twitter @lennonflowers.

If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed or otherwise involved with PACH, please email nyu.pach@gmail.com.