The Virtual Dinner Guest Project uses video conferencing technology, such a Skype, to connect groups on different sides on the world as they eat. Participants discuss important issues faced in their communities, including many human rights-related topics. In this post, participant Lindsie Bear sheds light on her experience connecting a group of Native American participants with a group from Gaza in April 2013.
Sarah Kerr: What is the Virtual Dinner Guest Project? How did you get involved in the project?
Lindsie Bear: Virtual Dinner Guest (VDG) is a project that brings together groups from diverse cultures and distant parts of the world for a meal over Skype. Often participants are selected from two places whose governments are involved in some kind of conflict. The meal gives the participants the chance to ask each other frank questions and break bread — two fundamental ways that people get to know one another. It also helps put faces to stories we hear about on the news. Sometimes the interaction ends with the dinner and sometimes people keep in touch in to the future. VDG founder, Eric Maddox, is also working on designing longer-term engagements where participants collaborate on projects that help them understand each other’s worlds.
I got involved with the project through my friendship with Eric. I run a Native American publishing and outreach program in California, so it seemed obvious to us to connect Native people, who are often misrepresented or ignored in media, to Palestinians in Gaza, who also have difficulties with how their struggles are presented to the world. We thought it would give two very different groups, both of whom are surviving through an occupation of their homeland, a chance to talk. And when we took the idea back to our respective communities, both sides were really enthusiastic.
SK: Can you describe the process of the dinner?
LB: Since we were bridging a significant time difference, the Gazans ate dinner while we had breakfast. The meal was planned for early morning and we had a tight schedule because the Palestinians needed time to get home safely and at a reasonable hour. I sincerely appreciated the effort that both sides made to meet one another. Our Native breakfast guests were quite a mixed group. We had participants from several different tribes — Ohlone, Tongva, Pueblo, Seminole, Yurok, Navajo, Cherokee. The group was also intergeneration and included people in their 20’s to people their 60’s, with varied backgrounds and political views.
I remember tearing up a little at the beginning when we finally connected to Gaza (the internet was really spotty there) and all of the Native participants introduced themselves in their Native languages. We hadn’t planned that. It was incredible to hear Native people from sovereign tribal nations that had undergone such horrendous genocide for so long, speaking languages that were dangerous to even utter in this country for a large part of the 20th century. I loved that this was the piece of America that we got to share with Gaza. We ate some traditional foods like wild strawberries, smoked salmon from the Klamath River, chia seeds, fried seaweed, and manzanita cider, while our Palestinian guests shared a typical dinner in Gaza. I wish I had asked more about what they were eating because it looked delicious! We jumped right into a pretty direct conversation for two hours, with the occasional pause when their internet connection would fail.
SK: What was discussed during the meal? What did you find you had in common with the group from Gaza?
LB: I think the first question from our end was about who sanctions suicide bombings, and their first question for us was about why we didn’t want to assimilate into American culture. Since we just had this one shot to speak with one another, we really went for it. There was a buzz of nervousness that turned into relief over the course of dinner as we talked about these taboo subjects with openness and curiosity. We chatted about what each other’s day-to-day lives were like, what occupation and having one’s ancestral lands taken over was doing to our communities, what we loved and didn’t love about the places we live, and how we grieved. At moments, it was quite intense. We really bonded over the role of humor in all of our cultures, and how we used it to survive dark times. Our Palestinian guests were so forthright, funny, individual and charming. They kept having to explain their puns to us through the translator. It was amazing to me how we could all let our guards down and get to know one another. After about two hours (which went by in a flash), we traded questions that each side would take to the streets of their community to interview more people.
SK: What question did your group take back to your community in San Francisco? What was your question for the Gazans?
LB: Our Palestinian guests asked us to take around a question about why we hear more about Palestinian struggles than we do about Native American struggles in international media. They seemed genuinely surprised to hear about the economic, racial, and social disparities in the US, and wanted to know why it wasn’t more visible in the world. They were really caring and concerned about our welfare. The Native guests gave the Palestinians a question about their origin stories are how they connected the people to their land. We came from such diverse backgrounds and tribes, each of which has its own origin story that connects us to our homelands. We wanted to know about the Gazans connections to their home. It seemed beautiful and deeply rooted.
SK: In your opinion, how does this use of video and video technology strengthen global human rights?
LB: A good friend of Eric and mine once told me that one of the most violent things we do in this day and age is to deny other people their complexity. Something in the act of simplifying other people allows us to dehumanize them enough to justify treating them as less than ourselves. Native people were categorized as animals and slaughtered. Palestinians are represented as zealots or terrorists and slaughtered. When we don’t see each other as fully human, it’s easier to violate one another’s’ human rights. Or, potentially, it’s easier to ignore that violation.
Video is the closest tool we have to meeting in person, especially the kind of live video chatting we did. It let us see one another’s’ mannerisms, hear one another’s’ voices and laughter, and see each other’s tears — all things that express the fullness of our complexity. Video is great for capturing nuance. It allowed us to have a real conversation about tough subjects with people we never would have been able to meet.
Every time I hear about a killing in Palestine now, I worry that it’s one of the people I ate breakfast with. It rips me up in a personal way that it never did before. And from the little I learned from spending an hour in the Palestinian culture as a dinner guest, I have a real sense of loss about what’s being obliterated there. The people on the news are no longer statistics. Now, when I have a question about what’s happening in Gaza, I can reach out to this network of people who I’ve met via video to ask them about it directly. I never would have forged these friendships otherwise. And becoming familiar with these simple video tools makes it possible for us to document and share human rights abuses in our communities, even when the mainstream media isn’t covering them. The VDG has come up with this innovative and enjoyable way of using technology to help us meet one another, look out for one another, reaffirm our shared humanity and celebrate our diversity. I’m not sure I have words to express how powerful that is.
Featured image courtesy of The Virtual Dinner Guest Project.