Tables to Change the World: An Interview with Michael Hebb
Last week, we announced our exciting new partnership with the 30 Project, a movement to create a long-term vision for food system change and build an alliance of committed people, organizations, and businesses that, together, can make that vision a reality.
With the 30 Project launch dinner taking place in San Francisco on March 6, we decided to catch up with the man in charge of planning the meal. Michael Hebb is a long-time believer in the idea that having dinner can change the world. In fact, he believes that the table—the place where people come together to share food—is our society's most important cultural site.
As he discusses in his TED talk and our interview, below, the table is a space with a long history of bringing people together and inspiring critical dialogue, open-ended inquiry, and action. Hebb's own table-making adventures have taken him all over the world, from coffee farms in Guatemala to the central median of I-5—and now to 30 cities across the US, where he will face his toughest challenge so far: inspiring a productive conversation about the future of the food system.
We talked about why the table matters and how to use its power to create positive change. Watch his TED talk and read our conversation below.'>
GOOD: How did you get involved in the 30 Project?
Michael Hebb: I met Ellen at a dinner that I was throwing as part of Summit Series in DC. I was excited about the work that she had already done with the Feed Foundation and the work that she was talking about doing with the 30 Project. I posited the idea that if she was going to talk revolutionizing the global food system, then the dinner table was the perfect place—maybe the only place—to do it.
GOOD: What are the particular dinners or dining rituals that inspire you?
Hebb: One of the table rituals that has been enduring and, I think, very effective, is the Seder. I don’t see it so much as a religious dinner as I do as a dinner where people recall their history. It's an annual reminder to remember where we came from and what’s important and the notion of liberation. It's both symbolic and embodied, and to me it is a time-tested, beautifully honed, and flexible, mutable ritual that is a constant form of inspiration.
Nowadays, there are so few working models for gathering people together around food. You can make a reservation at a restaurant or freak out about Thanksgiving Dinner. It's terrifying because we have gone so far away from convening in interesting ways, but it’s also pretty exciting to have that open terrain to work within.
One of the core ideas that I keep coming back to is the notion that scale isn’t anywhere near as important as our culture would have us believe. There’s a huge emphasis on numbers today—how many Twitter followers you have, or how many unique visitors and Facebook friends. And with projects or new businesses, all people want to know is whether your idea is scalable. I think that the unique thing about gathering people around a table is that it has a very finite scale and you have to rely on a much older sense of how the world can shift—the idea that committed people getting together and talking passionately about things that they’re actually interested in can change the world.
GOOD: What goes into your planning process for a dinner? What are the kinds of things that you think about when you are bringing people together around a table.
Hebb: There are always the straightforward pragmatic considerations like location and timing and what the site is like and lighting and how we’re going to serve the food—you have to go through all of those decisions. I think of it as an architectural process—there are a lot of programmatic considerations to work through but the underpinnings, or the things you're trying to accomplish, are more phenomenological or philosophical.
With a lot of dinners, what I want to do is engage people way before they arrive. That's something that I think is very important, especially when there isn't this sense of ritual in our culture. When people arrive at a Seder dinner or another kind of traditional feast, they arrive in a kind of premeditated, expectant sort of way. Most dinner parties and food experiences that we host nowadays don’t really have that sense of anticipation or preparation.
The other thing that's really important to me is the notion of reciprocity. I'm asking people to show up at dinner as an active, embodied participant, not a spectator.
As an example, I've been working with the Potomac Conservancy, and they wanted to gather some leading philanthropists and expand their understanding and interaction with the river. So I gave them all an assignment. They received very beautiful apothecary bottles and beautiful, letterpress-printed maps of historic events along the Potomac, and their instructions were to fetch water from the Potomac. They were pretty high-level policymakers and philanthropists—not the type that you’d expect to get their shoes wet filling a bottle with water. But every single person who came had filled a water bottle.
That preparation meant that rather than the usual kind of fundraising dinner where the director talks about how important the work is, the guests actually spent the entire evening talking about their own personal experience interacting with the Potomac.