Episode 116 – Justine Lee, Politics at the Dinner Table

This week we continue our special series on the Art of Difficult Dialogue with the co-founder of Make America Dinner Again (MADA), Justine Lee. Following the 2016 election, Justine and her co-founder Tria felt discouraged by the results but encouraged to learn more about differing viewpoints. So, they created MADA in order to provide a safe, comfortable, productive, and delicious forum to learn from those with varying political opinions. Today, Justine and Jessica talk about what these dinners can teach all of us about engaging with those we disagree with in order to learn, grow, and preserve relationships.


Jessica: Hey, everyone, and welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join us here every week for conversations on living a life of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

It’s October. It is October, and I’m happy to say that we’re having a cooler October here in Austin, which is so refreshing right now. And you guys, Noonday Collection is celebrating 10 years! A decade. A decade of global impact. We have been able to place, in 10 years, almost 30 million dollars of orders directly from artisans in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. We’ve given away almost a million dollars to families in the adoption process, and we’ve had almost 80,000 women around the country open up their homes, open up their virtual communities, on behalf of these artisans. And through that, we are building a flourishing world. So, if you ever purchased from Noonday, if you’ve partnered with us in any way, I just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you. It truly is an incredible, incredible moment to reflect.

On top of that, we just launched our first-ever signature scent, it’s called Bright, and it is beautiful. It comes in this beautiful brass cannister, and it’s incredible, it is. You are going to want to burn this in every room in your house. And we launched our first-ever men’s collection. So, it’s a really big month. We’re doing a lot to celebrate. So, go find Noonday, go find me, over on Instagram. We’re doing tons of giveaways for our men’s line, for new our new candle scent, our new holiday collection – we are having so many just fun birthday surprises. So, go on, check that out. If you’re not subscribed my email list, you can go subscribe to that JessicaHonegger.com, two Gs one N, hopefully you know that by now. But anyway, I’m just thankful for y’all, and I just wanted to invite you to celebrate with us, because a decade is no joke. Let me just say, it ain’t no joke.

Alright, on to today’s guest. We have Justine Lee. She is the co-founder of Make America Dinner Again. You’re going to hear all about it on today’s episode. Following the 2016 election, in the heightened divides and opinions, MADA was formed in an attempt to build understanding and move forward together. They’re small dinners and they consist of respectful conversations, guided activities, and delicious food shared among 6 to ten guests who have differing political viewpoints.

So, I really wanted a peek into one of these dinners. She gives us a peek inside of what it really looks like when you get a bunch of people with varying viewpoints together to actually talk about those varying viewpoints. What does that actually look like? Find out.


Justine Lee: Politics at the Dinner Table

Jessica: So, I wanted us to just start from the very beginning. What were you doing professionally and personally pre-2016 election?

Justine: Sure, yeah, before the 2016 election, I was working at a design firm. I was on the marketing team. And my career, at that point, had been in marketing. I originally wanted to be a journalist, but when I graduated in 2008, there weren’t too many job openings in journalism so I went down the marketing and PR route, and that’s what brought me to the design industry, loved the creativity, and at that time, lived in San Francisco.

And so, yeah, that was what I was up to before the election. And I actually continued in that role. I’m at the design firm after starting Make America Dinner Again so I was juggling both for a couple years.

Jessica: And so, after the election, you and Tria saw a need. Can you take us inside your conversations together? What were you guys talking about behind the scenes and take us through the journey of founding your organization?

Justine: Yeah, so the idea for Make America Dinner Again was born a day after the 2016 presidential election. I was really just reeling in shock, you know, drowning in headlines. There was just so much going on on my Facebook feed as well. Folks were shocked, were angry, were sad, were fearful. And I had a couple friends I knew were feeling the same as me and who I could talk through ideas with, and Tria was one of them.

And so, I wrote her an email the day after the election, and the subject line was, "I kind of want to host a dinner." And in the body of the email, it said, "with Trump voters and non-Trump voters and have prompts or starting points that lead to something delightful and real." And Tria immediately wrote back, "Yes."

And then, we just got on the phone and we started talking and we also started a text thread after that and we’re just like throwing out ideas on how we would… Our first order of business is how we are gonna recruit folks, how are we gonna… We don’t know any Trump voters, how are we going to find them? That was our first priority.

And I think that, really, where this idea was born was just realizing that this shock was rooted in the fact that we had been so entrenched in our bubbles. In San Francisco, we were surrounded by folks who thought very similarly to us, you know, who identified as progressive and I think that we just… and we saw all the vitriol and all the inflammatory language and rhetoric that was happening throughout the campaign and, certainly, after the election as well.

And we were just like, "This is not this is not going anywhere. We’re just hitting walls. We’re just talking over each other. And really, there’s such a simple, basic solution to this, or it’s one solution of many, but it really is just to take a step back and to hear each other out. I mean, coming from a place of curiosity and wanting to understand and wanting to learn."

“We’re just talking over each other. And really, there’s such a simple, basic solution to this, or it’s one solution of many, but it really is just to take a step back and to hear each other out.” Justine Lee

So, you know, the next two months we met up. We did research. We asked our friends and our friends of friends if they knew anyone who voted for Trump and who would be willing to sit down to dinner. And once we had that set group of folks, I think it was six folks all together, three right leaning, three left leaning, we scheduled a date for two days before the inauguration, and that was our first dinner.

Jessica: Wow. I love the words that you used in that original email, “delightful and real.” I love that word delightful. And I think when you imagine six people getting together for dinner, half Trump voters, half non-Trump voters, you would not necessarily ascribe the word delightful to that.

Justine: Nope!

Jessica: So, what framework did you put in place that would ensure delight and authenticity for that first night?

Justine: Yeah, our first dinner, and all our dinners, have really focused on getting to know each other and humanizing each other first before getting into the issues. And that can be really challenging for some folks because you know some people are used to a conversation style where it’s like, "Let’s just get into the meat of things right away." Like, "Did you vote for Trump?"

You know there were some folks who, I think, wanted to know who was who in the room. But we made it very clear, "Okay, we’re gonna have name tags, but we’re not going to identify who we voted for or what our ideology is. And let’s spend, really, the first half of the conversation, just getting to know each other as people and sort of what shaped your views and shaped how and why you voted.

And so, we also had an icebreaker activity where we had folks ask each other, more lighthearted personal questions not related to politics. And I think that also helps. And it’s just, I think, that the environment itself is so much… is so uncommon, right? It’s uncommon to be able to meet someone who you probably are going to disagree with, and most recently very much disagreed with in terms of who you voted for. It’s not common that we get a space like that, right?

So, I think that when most people are offered that space, they’re going into it thinking like, "Okay, I’ve got to be on my best behavior, it’s just two, three hours long." And also, there’s food, right? There’s gonna be a warm delicious meal that we’re sharing.

And our very first dinner was at this really great Italian spot in downtown San Francisco. And we had like four pizzas in the middle of everyone. We had a vegetarian option, we had one with meat. And it was just like, okay, I think that that element of it too is really key when you’re sitting down and you’re sharing a meal with someone, it’s really hard not to just see them as someone you could potentially be friends with, right? It’s hard to hate someone when you are sharing a meal with them.

And so, I think that Tria and I just made very clear in our invitation, the language that we used, even some of the imagery and how we frame this conversation that we are here to learn from each other, first and foremost, to hear each other out, not to debate, not to win an argument, not to change anyone’s minds. And I think in framing it that way and setting the tone, also some ground rules or guidelines, that really also helps keep things respectful.

“We are here to learn from each other, first and foremost, to hear each other out, not to debate, not to win an argument, not to change anyone’s minds.” Justine Lee

And I think the fact that we let folks know that this is a place where you can be yourself, and we curate the group so that there’s not one person who is representing an entire ideology or an entire party. There’s an equal balance so that folks don’t feel outnumbered, and I think that also allows some space for folks to be authentic and really open up.


Bridging the Space Between Us

Jessica: So, you are describing what I would call a utopia, where we can all get together, and we can agree to disagree and humanize one another. But I have to say, that takes a lot of emotional acuity and awareness. We just had someone on the show, a conversation expert, who, he was trained up by the authors who wrote a book called "Crucial Conversations" which has been really critical on my own journey of learning what dialogue is and to how to actually dialogue and not, in our conversations, just wanting be right.

And I think about the level of maturity that it takes. Even I feel like I’m pretty emotionally mature, and even now, some of these conversations, I can feel that reptilian part of my brain start to just go crazy. And he said, "If you are not self-aware, and you cannot just be quiet, when you feel that part of your brain light up, just don’t speak."

So, I’m just, how… And it’s one thing for you as the founder and your co-founder to be facilitating this environment, how did you multiply that framework and ensure a place of safety for participants?

Justine: In the very beginning, we took a very hands-on approach. So, whenever folks reach out to us and let us know that they were interested in hosting a conversation in their city or town, we would get on the phone with them. And we would talk through some of the ideas and we would share our stories from our dinners and some tips and learnings.

The thing is, when you’re bringing together a group of strangers, you really, you don’t know what you’re going to get, right? And you can’t necessarily anticipate every possible interaction or every possible dynamic between two participants or three or four, like, how that’s all going to play out, right? But I think that, you know, that’s why we spent a lot of time really curating and in vetting all our guests.

And like I said earlier, in the language in our communications preceding the dinner, we will just remind folks, like I said, "This is a conversation to learn and to listen." And so, when we are spending time training and getting to know our hosts, just letting them know that that’s the key.

And if there is anyone that you know you come across that doesn’t seem like, just based on maybe how the respond to the invitation, maybe they’re just like, "Who else is going to be there? Like, you know, do I need…?" I think that, I don’t know, for the most part, we’ve been very lucky. I have to say that like most people join with an open mind.

I think the times that we’ve had maybe some tensions are when we’ve had participants who are used to dominating conversations. So, they’re leaders in their own spheres, like they might be a partner at a law firm or a professor or someone who’s like used to leading a class or leading a group of people. And I think that’s where we’ve learned we have to be aware of how much airtime they have, and though that is baked into one of our ground rules, our group norms, folks often need to be reminded.

You know, at the end of the day, every host is going to make it their own and they’re also gonna know their city and town best, right? So, we’ve had folks in in Seattle, in Denver, in DC, in New York who have really taken it and made it their own. And I think that, for a lot of these places, local politics are top of mind or can be top of mind. And so, in that case, you know, they know best how to prepare for those conversations.

Jessica: So, take me back to how this email exchange you decide, "We need to do something. We are in our own echo chamber and we are possibly contributing to the problem." Fast forward on those, you know, four years from then, what have been some of your biggest surprises?

Justine: I really started MADA thinking I had a pretty good idea of the nuance of opinions that are out there. But I think that now, after four years, I really understand that it’s infinite across all different issues that exist, across all the different experiences one could have that makeup a person.

I know it sounds very obvious to say this, but not all democrats are the same, not republicans are the same, not all conservatives are, not all liberals are either. And I think that more and more people who are attracted to conversations like this are aware of that. But they feel beholden or they feel really influenced by the narrative, the really strong narrative that we’ve been told that, "No, there are some neat boxes. And it’s actually better if things are neat and you kind of like have a set of beliefs that you share with a group of people."

I think the folks that are attracted to our dinners are kind of like, you know, are ready to hear from other people, and also ready to have their own beliefs challenged in a way, right? Because I think that not only are these dinners great for hearing other people out, like actually hearing their personal stories and what shapes them, and also their actual view points on specific issues, it’s also, in doing that and listening, you’re also… you know, there’s a bit of like feedback that’s happening because you’re like, "Oh, is that how I see it? Like, maybe I do see it that way." You know, you’ve just maybe never heard it articulated in a certain way, but once you hear it, you’re like, "Oh, I actually think I feel more like that." Or maybe the questions they’ve asked themselves, I should be asking myself too.

And so, I think that the dinners also provide a place for people to do a little bit of that self-check. And it can strengthen, also, your confidence in asserting your viewpoints and sharing your story. And so, I think that a lot of our participants are really still in the process of figuring out what they believe about certain issues, and it can be really refreshing for them to see the nuances unfold in front of them.

“I think that a lot of our participants are really still in the process of figuring out what they believe about certain issues, and it can be really refreshing for them to see the nuances unfold in front of them.” Justine Lee


We’re Not So Different After All

Jessica: Do you have a story, some crazy story? I’m thinking, what what’s his name? Is it James Carville? Like the Democrat and Republican that was this… They’re married, you know? Like, do you have any have any stories of two very unlikely people they become friends, now they’re doing some sort of civil justice work in their communities? Does anything come to mind? I know I’m putting you on the spot.

Justine: We had two participants who joined our very early dinners in San Francisco. And one of them was a middle-aged white man from South Dakota who is a partner in a law firm. He identified as conservative, had voted for Trump, though Trump was not his first pick. He continued to support Trump after the election. And we had another participant named Min, who is a transgender Korean adoptee, who was also from the Dakotas. I believe, Walt was from South Dakota and Min was from North Dakota. So right off the bat, they shared that in common because that’s a part of the country that you don’t meet a lot of people, especially in the Bay Area.

And so, they actually hit it off with that common thread of both being from the Dakotas, and also both being fathers. Min had adopted his son and Walt had, I believe, three children. And Min, I should say, is progressive, you know, voted for Hillary. And they definitely did not agree on a lot of issues. Around their second dinner that they attended together, so they attended multiple dinners, it wasn’t always the same group, but they were kind of like the common two that sort were joining these dinners throughout the first few months of MADA.

It was not too long after the Charlottesville protests and counter protests, and the conversations got a little heated, they were not agreeing, they weren’t really seeing eye to eye on that issue. But at the end of the conversation, you know, Walt looked over at Min and was like, "You know what? I just I feel like I’ve learned so much about you as person and as father today. And I really look forward to the day that I can meet your son and talk more about that." And they hugged. And it was, like, just a really sweet moment. And then they went on to be friends and keep in touch.

And, you know, when Min moved into a new place, he organized a housewarming party and invited Walt. And so that was really sweet. And so, Walt did finally get to meet Min’s son.

And I think that it was an interesting dynamic because Walt, very much, is a curious person and had questions about what it’s like to be transgender, what it’s like to make a transition in your life. He would ask Min those questions, and I could tell at the beginning, Min was a little uncomfortable, you know, like a little unsure if, "Oh, are these questions coming from a place of genuine interest or are they coming from a place of somewhere else, right?" But I think over time, Min was able to realize like Walt is genuinely curious, and he is invested in getting to know Min and his family. And so, yeah, it’s, definitely… their friendship has been a really cool one to watch.

And then we’ve also had some great friendships form on our online discussion group, which is… Actually, it’s on Facebook. And folks have gotten to know each other over the course of a few years now because we started this Facebook group shortly after we started our in-person gatherings. And in this discussion group, there have been folks who…

Like, I’ll just share an example from myself. Like there are people who, when were on the topic of race and we’re on the topic of even like abortion or gender equality or any of those topics that are really heated and like personal, there are some more conservative perspectives that I just do not agree with, right? And I find myself feeling really uncomfortable and needing to hold back or needing to really think before I post something.

But then, when we’re on another thread, like, for example, we were on a thread about alternative gun groups and alternative groups to the NRA, and one of the questions was, "Have you heard of some of these alternative groups? Also, what is your experience with guns? Have you taken like a safety training?"

And so, I answered, you know, a bunch of folks had answered the question, and I chimed in and said, "You know, I have actually never held a gun before. I only have experience with like water guns and Nerf guns but not an actual gun. But if anyone is open to teaching me or sharing some thoughts around it, I’d love to learn."

And there we’re just a bunch of folks who chimed in. And these are some of the same folks who like I really disagree with on other issues, but they were like, "We’d love to teach you. Like, get started with this gun there’s not a recoil. Like, I did it, it’s a very light. It’s and that." And like, people are so generous. They’re like, "If you’re ever New Orleans, if ever in Arkansas, if you’re ever in Pittsburgh like, call me up and we’ll go shooting and I’ll teach you everything." Like, it was just… And in that moment, I was just like, "That’s pretty cool." You know, I wouldn’t have met any of these folks if it weren’t for MADA. And I guess I just still very much believe that there is something that you can learn from everyone. Right?

And I think it’s okay. Like, you know, I think it’s okay that I can form friendships with people I meet through MADA that are not necessarily, I guess… How do I say this? You know, in my day-to-day life, I definitely choose friends and choose to associate with people who I think have very similar values to me. But I think in the context of MADA, I’m able to kind of put that aside and know like, "Okay, we might not have… there might be very little overlap in our values and how we choose to live our lives and how we prioritize issues, but there’s still something magical and cool that can happen if we’re both willing to just trust each other a little bit." And, and I really think that many of our MADA participants, and Tria, I know she’s had similar experiences, like, it is possible. It’s really just taking those steps.

“There might be very little overlap in our values and how we choose to live our lives and how we prioritize issues, but there’s still something magical and cool that can happen if we’re both willing to just trust each other a little bit." Justine Lee

And like you said, it can be a lot. It can be very emotional and very draining to kind of put yourself out there and know that you’re gonna be hearing some things you really disagree with. But I think that if there’s enough of that other stuff, enough of the side where you see their generosity, or they see yours, or the curiosity. If you’re kind of like feeding that more, I just think… You know, it doesn’t exactly crowd out or completely put aside some of the disagreements, because I think those are still very important fundamental, but I think they can co-exist.


Being Friends Despite Differences

Jessica: Well, I would say, it’s not even co-existence, but you used the word friend.

Justine: Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like you can have friends you really disagree with. I mean, there are probably friends you have who share the same values as you for the most part, but like, you’re gonna disagree on something, right? But maybe, you won’t realize there’s a disagreement because it just doesn’t come up, right? And I think that we kinda make the assumption like, "Oh, all the friends I have now who I keep close, we would agree on everything. Like, this is my tribe, these are my people."

But like I said earlier, there’s actually a lot of nuance, right? And, I think, we don’t always have the time and the space to explore that nuance. We sort of know the things we know and based on people’s profiles and kind of what they put forth, and then we fill in the gaps. And that goes for people that you are very close to and also new people you’re meeting.

Jessica: How have you changed? When you think about your own emotional state four years ago to… Have you voted yet, by the way? Are you gonna mail in or are you gonna go in?

Justine: I’m going to mail in. Yeah, I’m waiting for my mail-in ballot, it should be here in the next week or so.

Jessica: Okay. So, you’re gonna mail-in. How could you describe maybe how you’ve changed because of this really important work of building friendships with people that are really different than you?

Justine: I think a couple things. I think the first thing is that I don’t just take anything, any news article I read or any description of someone, I don’t take it face value. You know I’m not just like “What I see is what I get,” or you know that kind of act of filling in the gaps. I think I’m a lot more… I take a little more time to be like, "Wait a second. I actually don’t know the full story just from this person’s bio or just from what they’re willing to share on their profile or how they’re dressed or how they’re speaking or whatever, right?" Like there’s just so much more there. So that is one way I’ve changed.

And then, I feel like when I think about issues now, and I think about big questions and the best ways to approach this and that, I feel like I have more voices in my head, right? Like, before, it would just be my voice or my parents’ voice or the media’s voice. But now, it’s like, "Oh, actually on this this issue, I’ve heard Brad talk about…" You know, Brad from Arkansas, who’s conservative Christian, a parent of two teenagers and loves nature… You know, like I think of Brad in his voice and I feel like, "Oh, okay, like, this issue is not just so simple. There aren’t actually just two sides. There are actually a bunch of different sides."

And I hear Brad’s voice, I’m might hear Sara’s voice, I might hear Jesse’s voice. You know, all these folks I have met along the way who have opened up. And I hear their concerns. I hear their hopes when I’m reading about an issue. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I will, I’m like, "Okay, well, I hear Brad so let’s go with Brad" or anything like that, right? Like, my mind has not necessarily been changed on issues, but I understand that when I vote, I understand how the issue is impacting more people. And I have personal stories and anecdotes and actually like more fleshed-out humans that I’m thinking of when I think about that impact, right?

And so, maybe the decisions I make, I don’t make as lightly. Or when I make them, I might think, "Oh, you know, this is something I actually want to talk to them more about, right?" Or maybe I’ll have more questions that I’ll ask before I before I cast that vote on a specific issue.

Like, I do think it just… yeah, I’ve really humanized multiple perspectives. They didn’t exist as like data point in an article or they’re no longer just one dimensional. And so, that can be really powerful. Again, like I don’t think I’ve necessarily shifted in all my beliefs, and neither would I say have most MADA participants. But I think on some issues where maybe I wasn’t sure or I didn’t feel like I had the full story, I feel like now I’m starting to fill that story out. So, yeah, that’s been pretty cool.

“I don’t think I’ve necessarily shifted in all my beliefs, and neither would I say have most MADA participants. But I think on some issues where maybe I wasn’t sure or I didn’t feel like I had the full story, I feel like now I’m starting to fill that story out.” Justine Lee

Jessica: That’s so powerful. That is infinitely cool. That’s the coolest. I am so thankful for your work and that you have a bias towards action. And that you didn’t just do in your living room, but you moved forward towards others, right, because that’s really what we want.

I was so struck recently. I watched the documentary, "The Social Dilemma". And I was reading these headlines after listening to "The Social Dilemma" and I was just struck by…. “What? Are we talking…? Is this real?”

Justine: There are days when do I feel concerned, but I think it’s like, after a MADA conversation, I feel hopeful. I don’t think there’s been a single MADA conversation I’ve had where I’ve haven’t felt hopeful. That isn’t to say things haven’t gone…. But, yeah, it is, I think it really is.


Talking Politics at the Dinner Table

Jessica: And so, I just feel like it’s a petri dish for what’s possible when we have conversations and humanize issues and see people and hear stories. And that’s what we need right now.

Justine: I so agree, I mean I really think that people just need the practice. They need to have the set space, they need to have a little bit of structure, and they have to have some questions that are put out there to help guide them. And once they have that, they can begin practicing some of these skills that we all actually innately have. A lot of them we were taught since we were little: no interrupting, be kind, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, that sort of thing, right? These golden rules that we were taught.

“They need to have the set space, they need to have a little bit of structure, and they have to have some questions that are put out there to help guide them. And once they have that, they can begin practicing some of these skills that we all actually innately have.” Justine Lee

And I feel like, it’s just we’ve gone out of practice, right? These are skills and environments that just don’t really… The skills that don’t get exercised in environments that don’t really exist. And I think that people want this. I mean, I can tell, there’s been so much interest over the years.

And it’s interesting, a lot of our interests usually comes around the holidays, so actually around this time, like fall, like right before Thanksgiving and Christmas and the New Year, when people are kind of like reflecting on their year. They are reflecting on kind of who they’ve been and who they want, and I think, looking forward about who they want to be. And they also know they’re going to be spending a lot of time with, in most cases, with family and friends. Right?

So, I know that there is interest there. But I think, for some people, it’s kind of like a surge of interest, they want to have this conversation and then, they get pulled back and in to life and media and the vitriol and the divisiveness and all of that. And of course, I do too. I’m actually, sometimes, you know, I kinda go back and forth between MADA and like scrolling on my Twitter feed.

And I’m so grateful that you’re allowing me to speak with you about this because I think people hear about MADA, hear about Living Room Conversations, Braver Angels, all these other organizations who are doing this type of bridging work, the more you hear that’s it out there, the more you’re like, okay, it’s in your head now. And the next time you get really worked up about something or there’s an issue that you just can’t believe that there’s another side to it, you’ll know that, "Oh, there’s actually a conversation I can join now to help me better understand another perspective." And so, yeah, just getting the word out and encouraging people to bring this type of conversation into their communities.

Jessica: I loved the picture that she painted of having all of these voices in her head. And I just imagined her at the voting booth about to make a choice and imagining, “Oh, what would Eric in Arkansas think about this issue,” or “What would Julie in South Dakota think of this?” And just being able to humanize policies is so important if we are going to have dialogue. So, that was just a cool conversation for me, and I would encourage you guys to have these conversations. And if you need a way to have a more structured conversation, then go check out MakeAmericaDinnerAgain.com

Thank you so much for tuning in today to our show. You can review and rate this podcast because it helps people find us. Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.