Project Neighborly: Outside the Bubble

What does it mean when 200 people apply to have dinner with a stranger?

For Bellingham Herald Executive Editor Julie Shirley the meaning is clear: in the wake of a divisive election, people in Whatcom County are eager to meet someone outside their sphere.

The Herald used a Project Neighborly grant to fund a series of dinners in area restaurants that paired people of different backgrounds for a meal and conversation about topics that affect our community. People who applied for the opportunity first had to fill out a “bubble quiz” and then submit their score to Herald organizers.

Political scientist Charles Murray contends there is a new upper class that is completely cut off from average American citizens. Murray, who wrote the book “Coming Apart,” developed the bubble quiz as a measure of how insulated someone is from mainstream American culture. The quiz was featured on PBS Newshour.

“I came across the quiz last fall during the election season,” Shirley explains, who was so compelled by the idea she not only took the quiz, but forwarded it to staff.

“Half an hour later I walked into the newsroom and there was a buzz in the air,” said Shirley, who was pleasantly surprised to find not only that people took the quiz, but that “we had a diversity of scores in the room.”

A week later, she heard about the Project Neighborly grant and her idea was born. She applied, and her idea was funded.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Shirley laughed.

Once she had the 200 applicants, Shirley began vetting participants and then figuring out who dined with whom, when and where — “starting what seemed like the community’s largest wedding seating arrangement puzzle” — except that guests were paired less by what they had in common, than what they didn’t.

The overall goal?

“Let’s listen to each other,” said Shirley.

Guests were selected and paired based on differences in bubble score, age, gender, zip code and availability with the primary aim of creating dinner partners whose conversation could shed light on how different experiences shape their ideas and opinions.

Guests were greeted with icebreaker questions on a card, which flipped over to reveal more substantive questions about jobs, health, money and education in our community to discuss over dinner. Dinner partners were encouraged to share their views and identify what they can agree on about Whatcom County, and the top issues they believe the community faces.

Shirley is the first to say that the process was inherently biased. While she didn’t want to restrict guests to Herald readers, practicalities limited outreach to just a few platforms, including the Herald website and Facebook.

People who applied are willing to take the quiz, fill out an online form about their score, answer demographic information and sit down with a stranger for a meal. In other words, people who are, by and large, active in their community.

“We didn’t get anyone who actually needed a meal,” said Shirley.

Still, after joining 100 people at eight dinners in Bellingham, Lynden and Ferndale, Shirley said it was clear that many people stepped out of their comfort zones to explore their differences. The results confirmed for her that while “we might come at it differently, we all want the same thing for this community.”

“We all want a great place to live. We have to go outside our bubbles to see that we have similar desires.”

When the dinners were over, while some wished they had gone even further to introduce “the other,” the desire for more ways to engage was nearly universal.

“People really want a way to connect with their neighbors in a meaningful way,” said Shirley.

For Shirley and the Bellingham Herald, that’s a key takeaway. The hunger for connection is real, and the dinners just scratched the surface.

photos by Alan Friedlob

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