Arleene Castillo, ’20, and Daniel Moncada, ’18, want to take Lehigh out to dinner.
Castillo and Moncada, student representatives of the Council for Equity and Community, are pushing to bring the “Make America Dinner Again” program to Lehigh in an effort to facilitate more intimate political discussions on campus.
Make America Dinner Again originated in the San Francisco Bay Area after the 2016 election as a way to unite people of opposing political viewpoints over good food and effective dialogue. Groups of about eight people from various backgrounds gather to discuss contentious issues and understand different perspectives in a more humanizing light.
Castillo and Moncada want to offer the same opportunity for Lehigh community members.
Castillo said she saw an advertisement for the event on Facebook and knew immediately that it was something Lehigh could benefit from.
“Last semester, we had a meeting and we were talking about how we can reach campus and reach out,” Castillo said. “We send out emails, but I sometimes feel like that’s not good enough . . . I saw the ad and said, ‘This would be perfect for Lehigh.’”
When it comes to contacting people on campus, Castillo said the issue with getting a message across usually stems from a homogeneous audience. When she contacts people for events, she usually only reaches out to community members she already knows.
“That’s the problem,” Castillo said. “We have to ask how we can make it a whole Lehigh thing, not just a minority thing. Not just a specific group of people thing.”
The Make America Dinner Again event revolves around the fusion of different viewpoints and backgrounds, tackling the dilemma of hearing the same voices and seeing the same faces at on-campus Council for Equity and Community events.
The next step in Castillo’s push for the Make America Dinner Again event involved a collaboration with Moncada to collect a diverse audience of dinner attendees. For the first dinner, the pair agreed the most effective way to represent a variety of viewpoints was to contact vocal groups they already knew.
“Initially, we were recruiting individual leaders that we know have certain backgrounds and certain views that we learned through personal connections,” Moncada said. “It really boils down to basic beliefs and how that might intersect with someone’s leadership on campus or the organizations that they’re involved with.”
Moncada said he intends to reach out to groups like College Democrats, College Republicans and the Christian organization Cru because these groups openly discuss their stances on a variety of political issues.
While the dinners might start small, Castillo said her hope is to publicly broadcast the dinners and inspire a variety of people to join the conversation.
“We hope people who never thought they would speak up come and talk,” Castillo said.
To facilitate the discussion, Moncada and Castillo plan to focus on conversation about current events and avoid abruptly tackling contentious issues.
“We just want to make it the most effective group dialogue as possible,” Moncada said. “We just need the people to come.”
One thing that stands out about the Make America Dinner Again event is the format of the discussion. News outlets and social media are flooded with divisive language and vilifying discourse that makes it easy to define a person based on their political views, as opposed to seeing them as an actual person. When seated together at a dinner table, however, that framework dissolves.
“It’s kind of like dinner with your family, in a way,” Castillo said. “You’re close enough, you’re together, you get to know people on a more individual level. It establishes a more personal connection when you’re sitting together and eating and just trying to figure out what’s going on with the world.”
Castillo said the dinner gives participants the opportunity to hear another’s viewpoint and have some context for what makes them think that way. In today’s political climate, Castillo said this extra bit of understanding is one of the most important things an individual can have.
Moncada said Lehigh falls into the habit of labeling, especially when it comes to political conversations on campus.
“Whether it’s Greek, non-Greek, athlete, LGBT, whatever, there’s always groups,” Moncada said. “But with a dinner, there’s a humanizing aspect where you can talk to someone as an individual, face-to-face, not group-to-group. We need that.”
Anthony DiMaggio, a professor of political science, said the Make America Dinner Again event is exciting because Lehigh falls victim to hearing the same opinions from the same people.
“It’s so nice to have that sort of dialogue because students get to go see it out and hear different points of view,” DiMaggio said. “I think Make America Dinner Again is a potential to sort of continue down that road. We should be looking to do more of that kind of stuff.”
While the intimacy of dinner table discussion does offer a more detailed understanding of opposing viewpoints, it takes time. Moncada and Castillo recognize that dining with 10 people at a time leaves a large population of the community out of the discussion.
“I’m not expecting this to be the one thing that changes Lehigh,” Casillo said. “People have the impression that to make change, it has to happen abruptly or right there in the moment, but we need to have small changes that add up to the big one. I’m honestly just hoping that people bring their ideas and have the confidence to speak up.”
Although there is no set date for the first Make America Dinner Again, Castillo and Moncada hope to host the event in the near future.