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The Dinner Party: Interview with Lennon Flowers

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Photo by Hallie Weiss.

 

We are so excited to introduce you to our friend, Lennon Flowers. Lennon is the Executive Director for The Dinner Party, a non-profit organization that is changing the way we speak about grief and providing opportunities for young women and men to connect with one another through evenings spent around the table. We talked to Lennon about the loss of her mom, the structure of The Dinner Party, and the advice she has for young adults walking down a similar path. Read on to learn more about her and her inspiring story.

 

Thank you for joining us, Lennon! You lost your mom when you were a senior in college—we are so sorry. Can you tell us about her and how that loss impacted you?

My mom was many things: a middle class working mother who never quite got over her days of single parenting, a photographer and documentary film buff, a product of the ‘60s and consummate real-talker with zero tolerance of intolerance, a fiercely independent woman who told us we could be anything we wanted to be, provided we were passionate about it.

She was sick for four years, and they were hard years. Her death impacted me in a number of practical ways, of course: my parents divorced when I was little, so after my mom died, we sold the house I’d grown up in. Home became an idea rather than a physical place, something I had to create for myself. My stepdad has since remarried, so our family is not one that can be easily categorized in Webster’s dictionary, though it’s also grown in surprising ways. When my mom died I lost the sounding board I’d long relied on, and I got used to making decisions on my own. As with everything, there’s a dark side and a light side: My mother’s death left me fearful of intimacy and reluctant to ask for help, but it also made me more empathetic and better equipped to sit with suffering. It left me profoundly aware that life isn’t forever and it made me hungry to make each day count. It also made me constantly fearful that some terrible thing was just around the bend.

The answer to the question of how this loss impacted me has changed a lot with time, and I suspect that’ll continue to be true.

 

Tell us about The Dinner Party, the organization you co-founded. We want to know everything—what the organization does, the population served, the makeup of your staff, all of the good stuff!

We’re a community of people who have each experienced significant loss. We connect over potluck dinner parties to talk about it and the ways it continues to affect our lives. Since January 2014, we’ve grown from a couple dozen people to a network of 200+ tables, powered by 250+ hosts and thousands of Dinner Partiers active in more than 80 cities worldwide, including Sydney, Amsterdam, Calgary, Toledo, OH, and Middlebury, VT.

Our strategy is simple: Build a network of hosts, find and connect them to others nearby looking for a seat, and change the conversation about grief with the goal of getting people to talk openly about loss and life after in a way that feels natural, inviting, and peer-driven.

We began by identifying the qualities that make a good host and developed a screening process to find them, select them, and bring them on board. We look, first, for people who enjoy the act of hosting and bringing people together. We want to ensure that they are good listeners, and we look for people who are in a place personally where they’re able to be “space-holders” for other people. We also seek out people who crave the same community they are creating, as we’ve found the best way to forge meaningful connection is to start with vulnerability, and that one of a host’s most important functions in a conversation is to serve as a role model.

We’re interested in using loss as a door opener to building lasting friendships and profound connections with people who can celebrate your good days and stick with you through the bad. Each table meets regularly for potluck dinners (on average every 8-10 weeks) with roughly the same mix of people each time.

When it comes to matchmaking—that is, connecting those who reach out to nearby tables—we use what we call a “human algorithm.” When a person reaches out to join a table, our first step is to see if there’s a seat available. We’ve found that the most important factors are age, proximity, and gender. Rarely will an early 20-something and a late 30-something form the same instant bond as they would with others who grew up with the same music or who are in a similar stage in their careers, so we try to match people in a similar “life phase.” We’ve also found that the relationships that last the longest are those where the connections run deep, so, when possible, we try to match people with similar interests and passions. We connect comedy writers to other comedy writers and backpackers to other backpackers. We have several LGBTQ tables in Oakland and we have a meditation table in San Francisco.

Finally, there’s the question of culture change. While we love the idea of Dinner Parties on every continent (oh, hey, Antarctica!), our broader goal is to shift the narrative from “victim” to “empowered”. How do we take one of our most isolating experiences and use it to build stronger community? What do we gain as colleagues, neighbors, and citizens when we stop ignoring one another and instead appreciate the length of roads we’ve traveled and the experiences that have shaped who we are? We’re working not only to make it easier to talk about grief but also to change the way we look at loss and life after through a combination of storytelling and engaging influencers and media.

Staff-wise, we’re just one-and-a-half at the moment, with me and a colleague, Ryla, who serves as our Community Manager. But the real team is much bigger than that, with four of us working heavily on the foundational aspects of our organization: fundraising, developing training and consultancies, and leading our media and communications efforts. We have a dozen or so other volunteers who regularly take on different Dinner Party projects as designers, trainers, community organizers, or event planners. And then of course, there are the 250+ people who are organizing actual dinners.

 

As the Executive Director for The Dinner Party, what does your day-to-day schedule look like?

We’re a tiny squad, so each day is different. My responsibilities have a lot to do with developing and articulating our strategy, cultivating partnerships and managing relationships both internally and externally, fundraising, and writing everything from articles and newsletters to social media posts. Our Community Manager handles all of our matchmaking, but I also continue to do some host screening as well as event-planning for things like host trainings, retreats, and community-building events. I’ve always been pretty good at the big picture stuff, but one major learning curve of the last few years has been the necessity for implementing good internal systems and being willing to do the taxing minutiae when the time comes.

 

How can someone who is grieving get involved with The Dinner Party?

Figure out if this sounds like you. From there, simply fill out our submission form to join a table, and we’ll connect you to a host nearby if we have a seat available (otherwise we’ll let you know when one opens up). We’re constantly on the lookout for new hosts, so you can also apply to start a table or simply download our Host Guidebook and organize a dinner with folks you already know.

 

How has your service with this life-changing work changed your life?

The single biggest impact is simply the community The Dinner Party has afforded me: some of my closest friends are people I met around our organization’s tables and as a result we’ve had a chance to build something together. This work has also given me a level of meaning and purpose that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m in a position where I find it difficult to separate the best things in my life from the worst. I’m still learning to “coexist”, understanding that it’s possible to be grateful for all the things in my life right now while still having hard days and missing my mom like hell.

 

What advice or encouragement would you give to someone who has just started the grieving process?

You’re your own best expert. All of our stories are different, but we’ve found that the single most common thread is that all of us at some point think we’re alone and that whatever it is that we’re doing, we’re doing it wrong. The best advice I can give, honestly, is to ignore advice and to seek out whatever it is that feeds you. Remember that moving forward is not the same as moving on.

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