2014 Grants Challenge

LA Conversation Meals

When sitting down to eat, what if, instead of a menu of food, there was a Menu of Conversation... and your dinner companion was a stranger.


Please describe yourself.

Proposed collaboration (we want to work with partners!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

When sitting down to eat, what if, instead of a menu of food, there was a Menu of Conversation... and your dinner companion was a stranger.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits all of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

Central LA

East LA

South LA

San Gabriel Valley

San Fernando Valley

South Bay


What is your idea/project in more detail?

Building authentic community, neighbourhood to citywide, begins with good conversation. Especially between people who might never otherwise get the chance to speak. It’s kind of like DineLA except for conversations and community building.

The idea:

The second Thursday of every month, all over the city, every Los Angeleno knows they can go out and engage in great conversation, with someone they would never usually get to meet.

People attending choose from the participating restaurants, food trucks and venues, based on cost, gastronomic taste, or location. Each location will have a set food menu, and when they arrive, diners will be seated with another participant they have never met, and given a Conversation Menu.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

We’ll start with a pilot in our local neighborhood - downtown Los Angeles - to get local restaurants and our community on board. Once we see what works, we’ll expand into additional neighborhoods citywide. We’ll use NationBuilder’s Community Organizing System to engage citizens, restaurants, and community centers in creating a web of conversation meals across the city.

The community page for Conversation Meals on NationBuilder will allow public participation in the organization and format of the events where appropriate, allowing the project to adapt to the needs and desires specific to each community as it grows.

Before any food is served, each participant will engage with Starters, Entrees, and Desserts from the Conversation Menu. These courses contain questions that will facilitate the adventure of genuine conversation, and help to create a two way dialogue.

The questions are very important.

Conversation Meals are not without precedent—and though they are not associated with a particular city (yet!), they have successfully been used to build community all over the world.

Here is a sample menu from A Handbook for Revolution: Empathy by Roman Krznaric:

A Conversational Entrée

What in your experience, are the best and worst ways of being good?

What would you most like to change about your philosophy of love?

How have your ambitions affected your humanity?

Do you feel more at home in past, present, or future?

What is your personal history of self confidence, and what has it taught you?

Do you think we can empathize with animals, plants, and the planet itself?

What is your ideal way of growing old, and who might help you do it?

Conversation Meals take from two to seven hours, often going far longer than anticipated.

Big questions, as successfully practiced by Sugata Mitra’s SOLE model, Theodore Zeldin’s Oxford Muse, and The School of Life in London, help us get over our inhibitions and over practiced personas, and give us a side door entrance to explore the diverse perspectives in each other, our city and the world. The Questions help us step out of our own way, connect openly over ideas, walk in each others’ shoes—go on a new journey.

The Los Angeles of 2050 will be formed by the exchanges that take place in Conversation Meals.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?

Authentic community begins with good conversation. It acts as a primer to a larger sense of connectedness and builds trust—in each other, in neighbourhoods, in the city we live in.

Conversation Meals will elevate the dining experience in Los Angeles by providing a reliable form of community nourishment for residents and visitors alike.

Far and wide Conversation Meals will renew LA’s contract as an epicenter of culture creation, this time through genuine dialogue in addition to the traditional one-way broadcasting we’re known for. Facilitating real time, in-person connectedness as an accessible, repeatable, scalable cultural event may become a defining attribute of what it means to be a world class city. We have the LA Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, and the most excellent conversation in the world.

Whom will your project benefit?

The impact is very personal and communal for anyone who shows up. There are numerous barriers to access the kind of safe format necessary to practice these important skills of authentic connection and community creation: the courage to show up, to speak, to really listen, and to walk in each others shoes. Where do we as a whole society get to strengthen these challenging practices deliberately?

This project will benefit anyone of any age, ethnicity, income bracket or background who is interested in having a good conversation, and has the courage to show up. It will also benefit whomever the participants go home to. Conversation Meals generate the kind of good feeling that spreads.

Because there are no barriers to the kinds of establishments we can break bread in --a long table at a taco truck, a school gymnasium, or a Michelin ranked restaurant, there is a very interesting opportunity to serve anyone from any community that is interested in community building.

With its car culture and sprawling desert climate, Los Angeles has a reputation of being particularly isolating. At the same time, it also presents limitless opportunity for dynamic connectivity between diverse groups and ages—but people have to talk to each other first.

Our collective reliance on technology has created a world where people interact with their phones instead of interacting with each other (as this video illustrates: Conversation Meals are a way to break people out of their normal routines, helping create dialogue and connection with people they may pass on the street, sit next to on the bus, or see in a passing car.

There is also potential for increased innovation. Historically it occurs through authentic discussions around themes:

“At it’s best, conversation is a form of adventure. Like the idea of Socratic dialogue, if you bring two people together with different viewpoints and experiences, the encounter between them can create something unexpected and new. This is just what happened in the 1950’s when Francis Crick and James Watson immersed themselves in endless discussions about genetics from their different disciplinary perspectives—a conversation that resulted in the discovery of the structure of DNA.” -Roma

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

To reach the greatest cross section of people we’ll partner with a diverse range of restaurants and community centers to host Conversation Meals, starting with our pilot in DTLA. By hosting conversation meals on slower restaurant nights, we can support local restaurants by bringing in additional business.

Possible restaurant partners in DTLA:

Five0Four Restaurant (opening in DTLA)

Faith & Flower

Ebanos Crossing


Pete’s Cafe & Bar (Tom Gilmore)

Smeraldi’s (in the Biltmore Hotel where NationBuilder’s new offices as of December, 2014)

Church & State

Local radio stations KCRW and KPCC would be a perfect partner to get the word out to the local community, setting a tone of local engagement. You can hear the announcement before Which Way LA, or work in concert to have combine Conversation Meals with events that would benefit from debriefing in a more intimate or innovative way than a cocktail party.

How will your project impact the LA2050 CONNECT metrics?

Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support

Attendance at cultural events

Participation in neighborhood councils

Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)

Total number of social media friends (Dream Metric)

Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric)

Residential segregation (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

We hope that once a large number of Los Angelenos have a fun and safe way to come together and engage meaningfully face-to-face, over a meal, we will begin to recognize talking to strangers as a social currency. Feelings of general goodwill and community participation are likely to follow.

As a result, conversation meals will support and deepen community behavior like volunteering and attendance at public/open cultural events.

Our greatest measure of success will be to relieve some of the alienation resulting from residential segregation and foster feelings of trust across the diverse communities in Los Angeles.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.


# of restaurants/venues participating

Engagement at the dinners / surveys of participants

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

At NationBuilder, we’ve learned that stories are the key to organizing. They give meaning to our experiences and help us connect with other people. In sharing our stories with each other, we’ve become more than a company—we’ve become a community. We believe communities can do anything, and Conversation Meals have the potential to build relationships among people within the LA community that would have never interacted otherwise.

In our first beta test with our own community of 160 people, many noticed a distinct shift in engagement before and after the conversation meal. One participant said:

“People who normally walk by more shyly were all saying hello--they were open, confident, smiling.”

This is a confirmation of what Theodore Zeldin, who founded Oxford Muse, believes can be achieved with conversation meals. He says:

“if you bring people together from different backgrounds, and encourage them to have a one-on-one conversation in which they take off their masks, share part of their lives, and look through each other’s eyes, then you have created a small moment of equality and mutual understanding. And by multiplying these kinds of conversations, you can produce a microcosmic yet potent form of social change. Think of it as changing the world one conversation at a time.”

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

It’s been done before in other places, and we’ve done it ourselves internally with our staff of over 130 people. We feel that with a person dedicated to organizing these events with restaurants and because there is a strong financial incentive for restaurants to participate, we will get traction early. Additionally, when people who participate have the experience of community, it will spread very quickly.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Being willing to share in a two way dialogue can be challenging, but it’s also the entire point of the movement. The framing and the questions will go a long way to embrace that challenge.

Movement around asking Big Questions is thriving in many disciplines and applications.

Airbnb is one example of how goodwill dominantly prevails. Yes, some people will thrash apartments, ie. abuse the situation. But these cases are uncommon. Setting the environment goes a long way—the design of any media, related content, messaging, and the types of venues should be diverse, sanctioned, and interesting. The questions themselves will be a powerful tone setter. Having simple rules of engagement on the invitation, (ie. this is not date night. please behave accordingly) with a person at each restaurant able to facilitate.