This week’s pita-consumer & PITAPOLICY Contributor, Eric Maddox, is the Founder and Director of the Virtual Dinner Project. Next month, Eric will share part II!
Virtually Speaking; Really Eating. Part I of II
By: Eric Maddox
Look in your fridge or pantry and you will find definitive endpoints of international commerce, our shelves and iceboxes revealing a veritable UN assembly of products and international partnerships.
At this moment the economic and political destinies of the world’s citizens are more interconnected than ever before. We work collectively to sate all manner of appetites, yet our intellectual and emotional connections to one another have failed to keep pace. What price are we paying for these disparities? What are the political, social and moral costs?
Still in its first year, The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is an international multimedia initiative born from a simple premise: It is harder to ignore, vilify, or harm those with whom we have ‘broken bread’ as PITAPOLICY also believes.
The nuts and bolts of the project are straightforward. Imagine engaging in a videoconference call from your dinner table while you and members of your community share a meal. The only difference: you and your community members are participating in a moderated discussion with people in another country. There is some strategy involved in the selection process, as countries with whom the US has less than amicable relations are actively sought out. Countries that suffer from an overly facile media profile are also a point of focus.
The dinner table represents the world’s oldest and most universal social forum. The Virtual Dinner Guest project draws upon this notion and then extends the concept of the shared dining experience across borders and cultural divisions. Imagine dinner tables extending into the living room of a family in Cairo, the Yale University cafeteria or a rooftop Café in Tunis.
Over the past 10 months The Virtual Dinner Guest Project has actualized all of the above scenarios.
The project first launched from the US with a series of Virtual Dinners that connected Americans to participants in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Kampala, Uganda and Karachi, Pakistan. Still in it’s start-up phase, the project ultimately intends to function as a platform for collaborative social entrepreneurship as well as a forum for international discourse.
Since February of this year, the project has established itself in the MENA region, connecting from a growing list of cities that include Beirut, Cairo, and Tunis, back to the US with students at Yale, the University of New Mexico, Northwestern and other academic institutions. The inspiration for the new geographical base is strategic, to reach out to American students, community leaders and engaged citizens and create critical points of contact with communities across the MENA region during a time of political transition in both contexts.
As the school year comes to a close, the project has begun to connect its MENA partners with its other participants in the international community, recently facilitating Virtual Dinners between youth in Tunis and Cairo, and more recently between Tunis and Buenos Aires. Australia, Pakistan, Cambodia, Lebanon and civil society organizations in the US represent a few of the potential points of contact for the MENA region during the upcoming summer in the northern hemisphere.
The Virtual Dinner Guest Project represents an opportunity for citizens to be out in front of their governments, to manifest a culture of open discourse that might be emulated by their leadership. What would happen if US citizens were able to engage in a bit of dinner table diplomacy with counterparts in Iran, a country with whom the US has not had diplomatic relations for over three decades? How might the media coverage of these events create a bit of positive pressure for more open engagement along the diplomatic first-track? How might events such as these encourage a shift in the global media culture, if it becomes apparent that viewers and readers have become more connected with the street level perspective than the traditional purveyors of information? If social media can be used to foment revolution, how might we use it to nourish notions of peace, justice and open dialogue amongst nations?
Still not convinced, I invite you to visit these Links to Articles and Video Content:
- Cover Story I wrote about my travels to Cd. Juárez, Mexico to set up the inaugural Virtual Dinner
- Profile in the Christian Science Monitor
- Article about connecting an Islamic Studies class in the Midwest to a family in Cairo:
- Article in Tunisia Live about the first Virtual Dinner between Tunisian and Egyptian Youth
- A video profile by a CBS News affiliate on the project
- A video promo I just made featuring interviews with participants from Yale and Cairo
Note: When not running the Virtual Dinner Project, Eric lives in Santa Fe, NM when he’s back in the States. He completed his undergrad in Philosophy and his graduate studies in International Conflict Resolution. Maddox finished his grad research (and first documentary film) in Israel and Palestine while living in Dheisheh refugee camp in 2007-2008. He is also working on another doc film on the US-Mexico Border. Contact him: Info@virtualdinnerguest.com