Community dinners as community engagement

by Marie
(Iowa, USA)

What about having some community dinners as a way of having community engagement? We are a small community of mostly farm families with a couple of small industries in town where someone from many of the families works. Some managers at the industries are new to the area. All in all it seems like we just aren't as together as a community as used to be when everyone worked on the farm.

Editors' Reply:
Like any kind of situation where a tight-knit geographic community now has newcomers, it's natural to have a little tension between the two.

Especially in your situation, where the newcomers probably are managers to some members of the old-time farm families, relationships might not be naturally warm and fuzzy.

Therefore we conclude that your community dinner idea is terrific. It would do what is called building social capital, meaning that networks of friends and acquaintances are introduced to other networks, and begin to share ideas, hopes, and aspirations.

That's all good for the future of your community, because it makes the farm families feel less resentful and opens their eyes to lessons from other places where the employees of the new industries have lived.

In fact, we'd structure some of the early community dinners in just that way. Have the farm families talk about and demonstrate farming; if you can start in warm months, try an outdoor picnic dinner on a farm where the newcomers can get up close and personal with the livestock, crops, or whatever your type of farming consists of.

You can find some sawhorses and boards for tables, or some folding tables from places of worship or private organizations.

Then at other times have the industries host the dinners at their buildings, if possible, and ask them to give everyone tours of their processes and to talk a little bit about the future of their industry, the valuable product it provides, and the challenges the industry faces.

This could be a monthly or quarterly event. Use whatever entertainment options are at your disposal, including asking school kids and church groups to perform. It's important that the food and fun be good, if you want to rally community spirit and build new relationships.

Now let's pick up on that phrase about community dinners as a means toward community engagement. This implies that you might have something a little more specific than developing social capital in mind. If there are community problems to be solved, certainly the community dinners could be the first step in building enough understanding among groups that you have a better chance of addressing the challenges.

If you mean asking everyone to dinner so that you can have a larger audience for some planning exercise in which you want to hear community input, that's excellent. Make sure you're very open about that agenda when you invite people so they understand that something besides socializing is expected of them.

If your dinners are a primary means of obtaining citizen input, you might want to arrange for them to be paid for on a voluntary contribution basis.

You don't want to exclude someone from governmental decision-making just because they are short on money that month.

Of course in smaller farm-oriented communities, the potluck dinner may be just the ticket for inviting participation, probably having more food than you'll need, and adding to the likelihood that people actually will move from simply being present in body to thinking about issues at the level of community engagement.

The transition from the social, "just visiting," part of the evening to serious subject matter is challenging, but have someone well-liked explain dividing up into smaller groups (hopefully separating families into separate groups) to focus on community assets or visualize future development.

This is a splendid tradition and one that sounds like quite appropriate community engagement mechanism in rural areas, unless all the cooks are working in the industries!


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Community dinners as a community engagement
by: Michael Smith

I agree, this is an excellent way to get back to basics which I call, simply learning to talk again. Especially since the boom of the internet and the like that takes away from face-to-face communication and non-verbal communication. Scholarly Studies show that approximately 80% of communication is accomplished through non-verbal communication.

Getting people to sit down, slow down, and relax to "talk" and learn to listen to each other in a non-formal situation can be empowering. I believe it allows people to be people and not behave like machines.

I'm interested in more posts like this one and will be adding another in the near future. I think it will be even more interesting to get updates about using dinners as a way to engage social activities and interest in the community for the transplants.

I've contributed a few articles to this site and so appreciate the responses and answers from the consultants that I plan to contribute more articles. So let's turn up the volume and rock this site with new down to earth ideas.

Michael Smith @ Rural Ethnography Solutions

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