In community building, it's easy to get into the (dare we say it?) trap of trying to build something for everyone. It's okay, often valuable, and sometimes essential to create a community for a specific type of person going through a specific thing.
As a young adult, Mary Horn lost her mother to ALS, and her grief led her to The Dinner Party, an organization that provides spaces (or “tables”) for people in their twenties through early forties who've lost a loved one.
The Dinner Party fills a specific need—community and connection—for a demographic that doesn't have a lot of grief support options.
Mary got more involved with The Dinner Party, eventually becoming a staff member and taking on the mantle of director of community experience. Along the way, she's helped guide the development of a community—really a community of smaller communities—where people can find support and build relationships, where they can listen and be listened to, and feel less alone as they muddle through.
Mary Horn (she/her) is passionate about creating strong community infrastructure and support systems that serve people well. After losing her mom in 2015 and Dinner Party-ing her way through grief in the years that followed, Mary joined The Dinner Party staff in 2019. She started at TDP as a Regional Fellow, matching Tables in the Northeast, before pivoting to build and manage TDP’s Virtual Table program when COVID hit in 2020. Today, Mary runs the Community Experience Team for the organization. Before her grief-inspired career pivot, Mary worked in Academic Editorial at Oxford University Press and completed her doctorate in Music History at Yale University. A Boulder, CO, native making the most of the outdoors in and around Brooklyn, you’re likely to find Mary baking sourdough or hiking with her dog, Lucy.
In This Episode
- How The Dinner Party grew from an actual dinner party into an array of virtual options
- Why the organization only serves people in a specific age range
- The importance of scaling well instead of scaling fast
- Active listening, witnessing, and avoiding the urge to “fix” grief
- What The Dinner Party provides, and what it doesn't (like therapy)
- How The Dinner Party structures its options: tables, the buddy system, and affinity groups
- An American Childhood by Annie Dillard [Amazon affiliate link]
The CX 036: Connecting Through Shared Loss with Mary Horn of The Dinner Party
Mary Horn: It can feel like talking about grief is a totally different universe than talking about friendships or relationships. But it turns out that actually, we're just all humans and if we kind of greet those relationships and those moments with humanity and seeing each other and talking through them, we tend to end up on a good side.
Tony Bacigalupo: Tony Bacigalupo here. We've got Jill Benbow.
Jillian Benbow: Hello, hello.
Tony Bacigalupo: It's Community Experience podcast. And today, we are going to be talking with Mary Horn of The Dinner Party, which is such an innocuous sounding name for a community that is all about bringing people together to talk about grief, over the loss of a loved one.
Jillian Benbow: The Dinner Party is so dear to my heart, as you'll hear, because I will fan girl all over this episode. But specifically, they're very focused on a certain person. And that's someone younger, someone in their 20s, 30s, early 40s that is dealing with grief, and they bring people together around a literal dinner table. And the thing that really struck me is just the value of being okay with saying, "We are for a very specific person and a very specific part of their life. That is who we serve and that is who we're focused on."
Jillian Benbow: There's something about that, and I think in community building today, we err on the side of like, "Everybody's welcome," and not to say that's not a good thing, too. There's something about holding a space for a specific group that then offers that group feeling comfortable and safe enough to really connect on a deeper level.
Tony Bacigalupo: You may find that even if you go niche down really specifically, you may find that you still have too large of an audience to ever be able to serve everybody.
Tony Bacigalupo: So, all of this is to say the folks at The Dinner Party are doing a great job of curating a community for a very specific niche of folks, who need it the most. People who are grieving, loss.
Tony Bacigalupo: Here we go. Mary Horn, The Dinner Party, really excited to share this with you on the Community Experience.
Tony Bacigalupo: Mary Horn, Dinner Party, so great to have you on the show. Welcome.
Mary Horn: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.
Jillian Benbow: We are admittedly, really excited about this episode. I've been looking forward to this for so long and to-
Tony Bacigalupo: But no offense to the other guests. No offense to the other guests.
Jillian Benbow: No, no.
Tony Bacigalupo: But you were all wonderful.
Jillian Benbow: I mean, not to discount excitement. But there's just this extra excitement around this because The Dinner Party as an organization does something that's very close to my heart, which is grief support. And Mary, you are the Community Manager for The Dinner Party. And I'd love for you to just tell our guests what it is, if they haven't heard about it.
Mary Horn: Yeah, no problem. And thank you so much for loving our org. I really love it, too and it's a cause near and dear to my heart. The Dinner Party is a nonprofit based in the US that serves grieving individuals who are in their 20s and 30s and early 40s. And the mission is really to bring people together around the isolation that comes from grief and not necessarily solve grief, but allow for people to build connection around something that ends up being really hard. And it turns out, it's not as hard if you have other people to do it with you and alongside you.
Jillian Benbow: So, so wonderful. And the name has to do with how you gather, yeah? It's literally like, "Let's have a dinner party."
Mary Horn: Yeah, exactly. So, in the early days of The Dinner Party we were founded several years ago and pre-COVID and in those days, what dinner partying looked like was actually gathering, getting linked up with people in your local area and going to a potluck dinner where you probably don't know anyone, and are meeting people for the first time. But the common thread is that you've all come together because you've lost someone or several people who you care about and you want to talk about it. You want to talk about what it is to live life after loss and to connect around that.
Mary Horn: And so, before COVID, we were, yeah, exactly, we're gathering in person and we're gathering in people's homes. And we're inviting everyone to bring a dish, maybe a dish that reminded you of the person that you lost and to come together around an informal space. One of the things about The Dinner Party is that we're not setting out to do a five-step program or in a kind of fluorescent lit church basement, but rather bring people together in an environment that's familiar and easy to talk in. And something that feels comfortable for people, when otherwise the topic is actually pretty hard to broach.
Jillian Benbow: And tell us a little bit because I know a little bit about your story. So, how did you get involve with this organization because I think this is an important story.
Mary Horn: Yeah. So, I lost my mom in 2015 and I think like a lot of other people in their early 20s when they lose someone, I found myself isolated in that experience, none of my friends or not my close friends had experienced loss of that type. And I didn't really know what exactly to do. And so, I don't know exactly what I was looking for. But I definitely found myself in one of those like, "1:00 AM, Dear Google, what do you do when situations." And I stumbled upon The Dinner Party.
Mary Horn: And I wasn't looking for something in particular, or something specific, but what I found was a space and a community where I could show up as my full self. I could show up as the person who had lost their mom and hadn't really planned on life without them. And I could also show up as the person who was in her 20s, dealing with grad school and relationships and career decisions, and all of those things that complicate your younger years. And I could find peers who were also in those spots with me. I could find peers who kind of got it. And they didn't necessarily share my exact experience, but there was a lot of resonance between what they were experiencing, and what I was going through. And we were really just kind of doing it together.
Mary Horn: And so, that's how I came to the community and that was in 2015. And attending a dinner party, just a potluck in another person's home. And then I got more involved and started hosting my own table when I moved to Brooklyn. And then in 2019, I joined the org as a staff member. So, I did regional managing and I did some work actually connecting tables together in the Northeast. And then I started on staff helping with the virtual table program, which was kind of the big pivot we did when we got to COVID.
Mary Horn: So, yeah, it's been a lot of years now, but over the course of them, it's kind of I came from a place where I really needed The Dinner Party as a participant and then moved into a place in my own experience where I really wanted the org to exist for everyone. And so, I think that's kind of what shifted for me in terms of being a participant and being a dinner partier. And then moving to a space where I really just wanted to make it work.
Jillian Benbow: Yes, I love it, I think, too, and something I really wanted to touch on today is the power of having such a specific criteria, for lack of a better term. So, we all have experienced grief in some capacity, some in deeper levels than other, but there is this, disconnect, I guess. When you're younger, and you lose someone very close to you, like a parent, a sibling. There's just, there's this disconnect between people that understand it at that age versus when my grandma lost her spouse at 90. It's very different.
Jillian Benbow: And so, to hold space for kind of that younger group going through grief, and to your point, because we, I'm saying we and I'm being very generous to myself, because I'm on the way older end of I think, I still qualify, but barely. But the things we're going through is just very different than someone in a later stage in their life. So, I'm curious, your thoughts, just how, the power of that, the power of it being this is grief support for this age group. What does that look like at the org?
Mary Horn: Yeah. I mean, it's a great question. And we kind of get it a lot, mostly because we get a lot of questions of like, "Oh, can I join if I'm 50 or why are you only allowing people in their 20s and 30s and early 40s?" And the short answer is really that there's always been a gap in support for this particular age range. And so, oftentimes, you'll see grief support or youth grief support, which kind of stops when people get to be 18.
Mary Horn: And then there's a lot of other grief support that shows up for people when they're in their 40s, or 50s, or 60s. You can imagine these as the kind of bereavement groups that especially cater to people who have lost spouses or people who have lost parents, and they're already in their maybe 40s, 50s, 60s. But there's not a lot that's actually out there for people in their 20s and 30s. And so, that's part of the reason that we started The Dinner Party for this particular group.
Mary Horn: And part of the reason that we limit it to that particular group, too, is because, one, we're a staff that's always tight on capacity and resources. And so, we really need to stay focused in order to serve people well. So, that's part of the practical reason. And the other reason is that we've actually found that there's a lot of resonance between people when they're at this stage in their life. And if they can come together and build bonds around the experience, particularly, the experience of being the first or one of the first people in their group of peers to experience significant loss. That's really what keeps this group tight and something that really contributes to our want to keep The Dinner Party to a specific age range.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, really, that's poignant. And I think it must be hard, because there are people that are maybe just outside the criteria. Frankly, kind of there might still be a gap, but your organization is okay with saying like, "Yeah, there might be. It's just we don't feel that." And kind of holding that that boundary to protect what you've built, I think, is really, it's bold, it's courageous, but it's important.
Mary Horn: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: It's one of those catch-22s of you could open it up to a wider audience, but then the people that you are there for, who are looking for an environment for them, start to maybe feel like it's no longer an environment for them. And then they stop showing up and then maybe the organization grows bigger, but the mission gets lost.
Jillian Benbow: That's what I think is helpful in a way because we're so used to, especially in community, it's very tech-based. A lot of tech startups kind of drove forward the digital community stuff and with tech coms venture capital and rapid growth and that kind of things and you know. I love nonprofits, I love bereavement nonprofits, so I'd like to see a nonprofit do community from a nonprofit way. It's so refreshing because it isn't about, "And we're going to scale so that we have a table in every city in the Northeast," or whatever. And well, and maybe that is a goal.
Jillian Benbow: But that scaling isn't the priority. It's the work, that's the priority. And that, I wish more communities would consider.
Tony Bacigalupo: You know what's interesting, too, is you can still grow plenty. I mean, how has The Dinner Party trajectory been over these years?
Mary Horn: Yeah, I mean, it's a good question. And I think to your point, I do think that we are, I guess, I want to name a couple of things. I mean, one is, right, The Dinner Party knows well, that we even if we did grow and grow and grow, we couldn't serve all the needs out there. And so, there's a little bit of an honest truth to being able to say, we do live in our community in some ways to maintain that specific focus.
Mary Horn: And even if we extended our reach as far as possible, especially since COVID, I mean, the amount of need for grieving people is astronomical. We live in an age where grief is everywhere. And so, it's not even necessarily that we could if we wanted to in a really broad way. We couldn't do it with the same skill and focus as we want to. And still, I think, at the age range that we have, we have been able to scale a lot and it's been exciting to see that, because at the end of the day, again, there's such a need for this group of people.
Mary Horn: It sort of seems, or/and this was my experience, too, that when I lost my mom, it really felt like, "Wow, I'm the only person I know who has been through this." I don't have any friends or I don't have any acquaintances. All of my parents friends are the ones who are kind of maybe my peers in this. And that also didn't sit quite right, because it just felt we were in different places at different times. And so, it turns out, though, that actually, a lot of people experience loss of some kind. And so, to normalize that and to build spaces that are specifically for it, if anything just kind of fills out the grief experience and grief services in some way.
Mary Horn: And over the years, we've been able to scale, kind of as much as we can our model has always been one where we rely on volunteer hosts to build tables. And so, a lot of our community, we've always had sort of more people looking to find a seat than the seats that we have. And that's really because we want this to be a peer-led collective care experience. So, the hosts that we have, are not trained professionals, but they are trained by our staff.
Mary Horn: And all of the tables are peer-led and so that means that our community grows as the number of tables grows as the number of hosts grows. And so, over time, that's meant that we do have a sort of linear trajectory of just more tables over time. But we haven't necessarily scaled exponentially over the past several years, mostly because we're trying to go step-by-step and really do so with care.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, much better to scale well than to scale fast.
Mary Horn: Yeah. And it matters a lot to us to do that when the people we're serving are grieving individuals. Like, scaling is always tricky in any scenario and I think we take particular care in doing it for our community because when these relationships fail or when they don't work out, it kind of lands differently when what you're coming to our nonprofit for is grief support.
Tony Bacigalupo: Can you speak a little bit to the grief support side of things? So, you mentioned that it's peer-led and I've dealt with this with some of the programs I've done, where we know we're treading into difficult territory when it comes to deep, strong emotions, different people or different level of emotional needs and there might be other factors at play. How do you create an environment that feels safe for people to share and that consistently produces a healthy outcome?
Mary Horn: Yeah, yeah. That's such a good question. I guess, there are a couple of things I can say about that. On the one hand, we always see The Dinner Party as a resource that's one of maybe many that people come to when they're grieving. We're not a one-size fits all. And people need multiple things when they need support and when they're looking for support system. So, I see The Dinner Party as really just one of many things that people might find and what we do in particular is build spaces where people can gather with peers, who sort of get it, who have been there, too, and who you can talk with on a human level about what you're experiencing.
Mary Horn: That's different say than going to a therapist and getting advice. We build these tables and these connections with hosts and with peers, so that it's actually not an advice-giving space, but really, "Here's what I'm sitting with, what are you sitting with, too?" And something that allows people to kind of meet, meet everyone where they are and share freely. And so, to build that we've done a few things over the years.
Mary Horn: On the one hand, we train all of our volunteer hosts. So, all of our hosts go through a two-part host training. And in those trainings, we kind of lay out the mission of the org, what hosting is and isn't, what peer-led care can look like and feel like. And the kind of mentality that we want everyone to go into these experiences with. So, being a host isn't being a seminar leader, it's not being a therapist. It's, "This is my struggle and you have yours, too" kind of model. It's not a fixer model or anything like that.
Mary Horn: And so, that means that we try and have hosts be the ones to help set the tone for the experience. But hosts are also dinner partiers, so they're going to these gatherings, also, looking to share their story and hear the story of others. And so, that's one of the ways in which we try and really build these communities based on peers. And I think over time, what we've found is that you don't always need someone with letters behind their name to actually help you through what you're going through.
Mary Horn: A lot of the time people just need someone who says, "Yeah, that resonates. This reminds me of a time when I," fill in the blank or even just people to sit with them and something that's really hard. Or more importantly, sometimes, people to laugh with them and to find joy in those unexpected moments because these groups are also not just about being sad, together, they're about living life after loss, and about doing so alongside one another.
Mary Horn: And so, I think that there's a huge swath of conversation and relationship building that can happen on a peer level and that's what we're trying to cultivate. And it's not a replacement or a substitute for professional mental health services, or anything like that. But it's really just relationships, you can build and talk openly about what you're going through.
Jillian Benbow: I'm sure therapists in general, too, would agree. It's like, "Yeah, you come to me for a very, that's a very specific one-on-one." You're really reflecting and going internal about you, but going and getting that peer support outside of a therapy model is hugely healing. And just that feeling of, "Oh, I'm not alone in this. It still sucks." But other people have this experience and just even though again, doubly sucks that we both have this experience. Just knowing someone else understands is so powerful.
Mary Horn: Yeah, absolutely. We often refer to The Dinner Party as the club that no one wanted to join. But once you're there, you're happy to have the company at least. It's like, "Oh, there's this mutual agreement that if we would have had our own way, we wouldn't have found ourselves here. And we're really grateful to have the accompaniment even still.
Jillian Benbow: I wish I never would have met you, but I'm glad I did.
Mary Horn: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, it's such a hard line to tow. But it's really ours to hold and yeah, I think we feel that way about the whole community. That like, "We're sorry you're here. And we're also so grateful for it."
Tony Bacigalupo: Do you find that there are people who come to the events who say that they thought that nobody could understand? And then they, they feel like that shifts for them when they go to an event this?
Mary Horn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that's maybe the most common experience, which is really exciting on a lot of levels. And I should also mention, so we have tables, which are small groups of individuals who get together with a host and that's the sort of group experience that you can have at The Dinner Party, all grieving peers.
Mary Horn: And then, we also have something called the Buddy System, which is a one on one connection, where we match people one-on-one to talk about their grief as well. And I think in both of those situations, people can end up in a scenario where they're either talking to a grief peer and the buddy system or they're going to a table and having the experience of hearing a lot of stories at once. And at the end of it, the end of the day result that we really hope for, is that they leave feeling less alone than when they came.
Mary Horn: And there's so many connections that people make in terms of arriving at a place thinking like, "Oh, there's no chance that anyone has lost the person that I will talk about or feels the same way that I do." And sometimes that's right. No one has the same experience. But the fact that there's a lot of resonance between what it's like to lose someone or what it's like to navigate a career after a loss or navigate a relationship. All of those resonances, actually, I think are what contribute to people feeling less alone.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, I feel like it's just so hugely important. This reminds me a little bit of what I would hear about recovery groups, 12-step groups, things like that. Do you know if The Dinner Party has modeled its gathering format off of other existing programs or best practices?
Mary Horn: Yeah, that's a good question. In some way, I think we've gone about building this community as sort of tipping those models on their heads a little bit. And what I mean is, a lot of bereavement groups or recovery groups kind of start from a place of, "Here's Step 1 and we'll take you through it. And once you're done, you're done. And we'll kind of, it's yours to carry from there." And instead of that, I mean, I think The Dinner Party readily admits that there's no five-step program to getting over losing someone or anything that.
Mary Horn: But beyond that, I think what The Dinner Party really builds for his community first. And so, that means we're connecting people based on their stories and what they're looking for, and the type of grief that they want to talk about. And then, we're letting them form relationships and kind of see where it goes. I mean, I think that's one of the beautiful things about The Dinner Party model is that we try and start with the relationship building. We set up tables and train hosts, so that there's common community guidelines that people are following. There's a sort of similar shared goal of gathering and being witnesses to one another. And we start with that first.
Mary Horn: And then we don't make a plan because I think most grievers would admit, there's really no roadmap. There's no roadmap to like, "I'm going to feel this on this day. And then I'm going to feel this on the next day," but rather, it's a constantly moving target. And what we really hope for is that when people join a table and gather with people regularly over time. That they build relationships that they can just be with and that they can have throughout their journey wherever that ends up going.
Tony Bacigalupo: So, in terms of what's the participants journey through this? They'll come to a dinner party, maybe they just come to one and they get everything they need from it, they don't have to come back. But do people become regulars? Does it evolve into something else? Do you have this dynamic of kind of people who are coming all the time, and then newbies who are coming in and there's kind of like a mentor-mentee kind of relationship? How does that play out over time?
Mary Horn: Yeah, so we don't have mentor-mentee relationships, because it's really, everyone's a pear here and nobody is a necessary expert. But typically, when people come finding The Dinner Party, they can have the option of choosing to sign up for a table or sign up for a buddy or both. They can choose their own adventure in terms of what they're looking for. Sometimes people are like, "Yeah, sign me up for a group experience," because I would love to be in a group of people. And sometimes that's really intimidating for people, so people opt to go to the buddy system and just get matched with another peer, so they have a one-on-one connection.
Mary Horn: Either of those pathways or if people do both of them, they always lead you to an ongoing set of relationships. So, every table that we start actually meets regularly on an ongoing basis for however long that table wants to stick together. So, we've had tables who have started and typically the group sizes are about eight to 12 people. And so, at the beginning, eight or 12 people show up for the first gathering, people make introductions, and then that table will meet, maybe on a monthly basis ongoing. We've had tables meet for a year. We've had tables that are still meeting five years later.
Mary Horn: And those kinds of formats change, but the group actually stays together. And that's part of the point, so that you can actually get to know people over time. Same with the buddy system. If you get matched to a buddy. That's actually your relationship to go hold and have moving forward. And the great part about that is that you can have people along for the ride with you as it were.
Tony Bacigalupo: This is incredible, because, Jill, I'm wondering if you're thinking what I'm thinking about mastermind matchmaking, and some of the things. This unrelated entirely to what we're talking about. But there's this overlap of how do you have a larger community that can then break up into smaller sub communities of people that dive deeper together in a way that gracefully allows for people to find the right people for them. And when that group is no longer the group they want to be with that they can kind of rejoin kind of the, the main stream and find a different table to sit at.
Tony Bacigalupo: Is that kind of how it works? If I sit at one table and I might be there for months with one group, that there's a graceful, inoffensive way to decide that I'm going to sit at a different table now, for whatever reason?
Mary Horn: Yeah, absolutely, I think there are a couple of ways that people move through the community. One is that when you come and join a table in particular, so the buddy system, we actually match peers one-on-one. And so, our staff, who are wizards have this, actually look through people's submissions and try and match people based on experience and what they're looking for. And that's the one-on-one match that happens.
Mary Horn: If you join a table, we let people sign up for the table of their choosing, but we help host sort of curate their table and name it and provide a bio and name some of the things that they're hoping to connect around. So, a lot of it is the sort of, "Hey, I see the story that you're holding and that actually holds some resonance for me. I want to sign up for your table and explore this with you." And so, there's a lot of that opt-in connectivity that we allow for. And you can't always know what the relationships will be like until you actually get there.
Mary Horn: And so, I think we also, we hold the both end of kind of allowing people to opt into a table. And we encourage people that when they join that table, just stick with it for a little while. Get to know that people. Connection can happen in one night, but real community takes time and so, we don't expect anything to happen immediately. But if down the road, four or five gatherings in, you say, "You know what? This table is just really not serving me and what I'm looking for. I'm looking to have a conversation about the type of loss I experienced or the cause of loss or something like that. And the people here, don't feel like my peers in that."
Mary Horn: That's okay, too. Like any relationship, I think honesty and openness in moments like that going to a host and saying, "Hey, thank you so much for holding this space. It's just not where I am right now. We completely encourage people to do that. And then they can hop over and join a different table in the same way that they did the first time, which is looking through what's available and saying, "Oh, look at this host, looking to hold a space that's geared towards suicide loss or a BIPOC table," or something like that. And then they can join based on whether or not they share that experience or whether or not it's catering to what they're looking for.
Jillian Benbow: That's beautiful, of course. I'm curious to kind of take that a little deeper, and maybe a darker turn is surely you've had instances where maybe someone joins the table and for whatever reason, they're not a fit for the table, and maybe they don't realize it. Maybe it's still too raw, maybe they're very angry, for whatever it is it affects the table.
Jillian Benbow: How do you go about dealing? Because one, like, they have a part of them that feels broken. And so, you don't want to make it worse. But you also need to protect the integrity of that table. Do you ever have issues where maybe someone's just not a fit for the org entirely or not a fit for the table that they have joined?
Mary Horn: Yeah, I mean, we get this question sometimes. And I think one thing that I'm always excited to say is that these instances are really, really few and far between. I think we have an amazing community where people aren't being forced into this community. If someone is grieving, and they find us and they opt in to join a table, it's often because they're in a place and the choice that they're making is that, "Hey, I feel isolated and I want to build a community around the experience that I have."
Mary Horn: And so, it really doesn't come up that much and when and if it does, I think we navigate those things. I mean, this is sort of frustrating to say probably, but we really navigate it on a case by case basis. And what I would say across the board is that we try and remind hosts and dinner partiers that these relationships are just like the other relationships in your life. Oftentimes, if there's a conflict or if someone, someone bristles at something you say, or something lands in a way that you didn't intend, the best thing to do is just say, "Hey, I noticed this. It landed this way with me. And here's what I'm feeling." And have a conversation about it.
Mary Horn: And so, if a host comes to us and says, "X, Y, Z happened at my table," often our first response is to just say, "How did that land for you? How are you feeling? Can we build a conversation with this person?" Because it can feel like talking about grief is a totally different universe than talking about friendships or relationships. But it turns out that actually, we're just all humans and if we kind of greet those relationships and those moments with humanity and seeing each other and talking through them, we tend to end up on a good side.
Jillian Benbow: I'm curious. It makes me think about what, and for lack of a better term, this is very sterile for this situation, but what your onboarding looks like. So, when someone does find you and they're like, "Yes, this is for me." And they reach out, like how you go about helping them find their table? What does that look like? Because obviously, it's very successful, which is amazing.
Mary Horn: Yeah, I mean, it has looked different over the years. And so, I can give you a little bit of a lineage as it were. When we first started and before COVID, we matched every table by hand as it were. We have an intake form and people tell us a little bit about their loss experience and what they were looking for, and more importantly, where they lived. And what we would do is, as we on-boarded hosts in specific locations, we would kind of build a table around a diverse set of loss experiences and ultimately, make sure that no one was really alone.
Mary Horn: So, if someone had a particular, if a bunch of people at the table had lost parents and one person had lost a sibling, we would try and match tables, so that that wasn't really the case. So, we'd have a diversity of loss experiences, so that people can actually have some resonance with some people and learn from others. When COVID hit, and we moved virtual, we actually shifted from doing a hand matching process to having a sign up process. And so, that means that we still onboard and train hosts in the same way, but we leave the choosing up to the dinner partiers.
Mary Horn: And there was a moment in our org where we thought like, "Oh, wow. Will this work?" Because we've been trying to kind of play God and do all the matching on our own. And then it turns out that as we always say, at The Dinner Party, "You're your own best expert." And it turns out that if you're grieving and you're looking for a kind of connection, and you read a host bio, and that lights something up in you, it's actually probably a pretty good fit and we love allowing people to do that. So, the signup process has actually worked really beautifully and we've been running with that since March of 2020.
Mary Horn: And so, to your point about how do we help people get to their table, a lot of that today looks like setting up the host to really sort of curate a space and describe it in a way that will resonate with others. we ask hosts to write bios about their experience, and then quite plainly just list the things that they're sitting with. Like, "What do we want to talk about? Do you want to talk about career shifts? Do you want to talk about the experience of losing a parent? Do you want to talk about suicide loss? "
Mary Horn: All of these things are on the table and when they kind of lay those out for community members. And then we put them up on our new platform and people can browse through them, that means that people can kind of sift through and find what feeds them.
Tony Bacigalupo: So, you're getting a little more granular in terms of how people really articulate what kind of a table they want to be sitting at for a given moment?
Mary Horn: Yeah.
Mary Horn: I don't know if this is helpful context, but we also allow people to start a couple of different types of tables. So, you can start a table that is open to all loss experiences and identities. Those are sort of sometimes those are location based, sometimes they're virtual, or we allow people to start affinity spaces. And affinity spaces are tables that are built by and for people who share a particular loss experience or identity. So, you can imagine a suicide loss table, a BIPOC table, a sibling loss table. We have a whole smattering of options that people sometimes choose.
Mary Horn: And the difference between a sort of all-loss experience table and an affinity space is really what's given. At any of our tables, you'll always find grievers who are in their 20s, 30s, early 40s, who have experienced some type of loss. But if you go to an affinity space, you might be choosing that affinity space based on an identity or an experience that you resonate, that you've experienced. And you'll get linked up and know that everyone else at that table will also share that identity or experience.
Tony Bacigalupo:can you just say a little bit more about what kinds of losses, maybe specific stories or moments that people come together around? other than kind of what the initial common commonality was.
Mary Horn: Yeah. So, one thing we've learned over time is that everyone coming to The Dinner Party has experienced some kind of loss. And sometimes, there's another factor at play where maybe you've experienced a suicide loss and being surrounded by a bunch of other people who've experienced parents or siblings not to suicide actually leaves you feeling still a little bit alone. And so, connecting on around suicide loss, whether or not it's a parent suicide loss or something else, you can actually connect around that particular type of loss experience.
Mary Horn: So, we've had a lot of instances like that. We've also had a lot of tables that we've seen being built around, I think one thing that has really stuck with me since the pandemic is One of the things about virtual tables is that when location kind of got thrown out the window, people could build affinity spaces in ways that they couldn't before. Before the pandemic, people were really limited to tables that were based in their area. And so, the people who you are getting matched up with were the people in your city. And sometimes in really big cities, we could link people up based on experience, but more often than not, you're kind of just based on logistics and who's around.
Mary Horn: When virtual became a possibility, it allowed us to see this whole new world of affinity spaces where people could gather in a really specific way. And so one, a couple of really beautiful instances of that where we had a couple of homicide loss tables. And I think the resounding response when we built those were, "Wow, I never thought I would meet 15 other people who had experienced homicide loss."
Mary Horn: And that's part of the thing about getting to a table in your area is that we can't necessarily guarantee that we're going to have those 15 people on our waitlist. But if we can build a table that is location agnostic, as it were, and you can say, "Here's an experience I've had. I've lost someone to homicide. And I'm really looking to connect with others about that particular experience," that can bring people together in a sort of new lateral way that we hadn't really imagined before.
Mary Horn: And so, there are a lot of instances like that since we've gone virtual that have been really incredible. And those have spanned homicide loss and suicide loss to BIPOC tables or LGBTQ tables. We've also seen a lot of partner loss or sibling loss tables. Experiences that maybe aren't a sort of majority experience in 20, 30, and early 40 somethings, but no less really deserve the space and a kind of specific table built for them.
Tony Bacigalupo: What about with Corona and now, with Ukraine? I mean, there's a lot going on. There's grief around loss that I'm sure there's lots of folks who have lost loved ones to the pandemic. What about other forms of loss, like loss of our time and our lives, and a lot of our energy? And I'm thinking of this also from your perspective of not just your community, but other community leaders who have to deal with the fact that they have a community of people who have, and are still experiencing the trauma and the shock of this, of difficult times? How has that played out?
Mary Horn: I mean, I think for everybody, it's been complicated for us. One thing that, I think, came to the fore immediately as COVID hit a couple of years ago, was that for grieving people, the idea of more loss and the kind of shifting ground of or kind of permanent feeling of shifting ground is really triggering. And so, I think for our community, we sort of tried to be a witness to those around us and kind of see what already grieving people really needed. And I think a lot of the time our tables look like groups where people really show up with what they're carrying that day. And that might be grief about the particular person or people that you've lost. It might also be how that's showing up in your day-to-day life, now that we're living in a pandemic, there's war. I mean, there have been just a litany of things that have happened over the past few years that have really brought people together and made the spaces for holding grief, many types of grief that need to be held.
Mary Horn: And so, while we don't build or have the resources to build tables for non-death loss, as it were, we still really feel like these tables are built for people wherever they're sitting. And so, I think it's certainly the case that people are showing up to their Dinner Party table and thinking about their personal grief while they're also holding everything else that's going on. And for better or worse, I think that's kind of a superpower of grieving people is that they're able to hold all the things at once. Maybe not wanting to always, but being able to hold that tension and to hold the experience that you've had alongside the political climate, alongside a pandemic, alongside the community that you're building right in front of you.
Tony Bacigalupo: That's so powerful. And I think it's an important point that even if people sitting on the table are there, because they have a specific thing in common, what they talk about isn't necessarily all that thing. It's what's going on for them and final thing on this point before we move on to rapid fire, but the thing that's on a lot of people's minds as of when we're taping this is Ukraine and all the just humanitarian tragedy that we're witnessing every day. I remember hearing, this was about Corona, somebody said, "We all have PTSD except we don't have it yet because it requires it to be post and we're still in the trauma."
Tony Bacigalupo: Any thoughts on just how do we deal with grief when we know it's coming, when it's ongoing? Just how would you recommend we approach the difficulty of this daily tragedy that we're all dealing with?
Mary Horn: Yeah. I mean, that's a hard question. And I think, I feel like I'm sitting in The Dinner partier position. I'm feeling really like I'm not the expert here. And I think what has held true for me is that, absolutely, we are holding grief that we carry with us. We are holding anticipatory grief. We are always looking around the corner waiting for another shoe to drop. And that is a hard place to sit in and there's no changing that. There's no silver bullet. There's no three-step plan that's going to get us out or, or make it feel better.
Mary Horn: But this sounds kind of dorky, but finding people who will sit with you in that, I think is the greatest gift, because it’s not all one thing all the time. We're holding all the hard and we're holding all the anticipation of what could be horrible around the next corner, and we're holding where we are today and where we've been. And so, I think, yeah, having witnesses to accompany you and walk with you and just witness you in how tough that is, that's what I'm holding on to.
Mary Horn: Because that's the thing the thing about grief is that we're not setting out to fix it. It's not something that we can solve. It's ours to hold and that's okay. But what we can solve is the isolation that one feels while grieving and while sitting in a hard place. And what makes something feel less isolating is just having someone there with you. And so, that means just being able to share where you are from a day-to-day perspective and have someone listen honestly without necessarily jumping to a conclusion, without saying, "at least."
Mary Horn: Without all of those platitudes that I know grievers have heard of like, "Well, at least they're happy now," or "At least you, got the time with them," or "If life gives you lemons," that sort of thing.
Jillian Benbow: So much we can transfer just from the practices of what you do at The Dinner Party, how the tables work. And to your point, your organization has that specific focus and as it should, that's what makes it so special. But all of us listening can take that and have people over. Literally have a dinner party, and maybe it isn't about grief. Maybe it's about, "Hey, the world is ending." Whatever or however you need to cope, I clearly use humor and have those conversations and make it okay. We don't have to pretend it's not in the room, whatever it is that's weighing on us. Yeah.
Mary Horn: Yeah. And I think to your point, The Dinner Party focuses on one particular type of conversation or one particular commonality that brings people together, and our conversations are really far reaching. And a lot of that is because people are sitting which with each other, honestly, and also asking questions. I think something that a lot of people maybe shy away from is the idea that if someone shares how they are, it's if you don't want to give advice or if you don't want to jump to a positive spin on something, what would it look to just ask someone more about that?
Mary Horn: What does that feel? How does that sit with you? How are you working that into your week or working through that? A lot of the time, those are the responses that really allow the person speaking to be centered in the experience and to be witnessed. And it allows the person who's listening to really be an active engaged party there. And so, I think that grief or not those, those are just human conversation things that are really beautiful ways to support one another.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, sometimes, sometimes there's nothing you can say or nothing you can offer aside from just, "Tell me more."
Mary Horn: Yeah. Right?
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, yeah. And that that's the best you can do.
Jillian Benbow: So, Mary Horn, are you ready for the...
Mary Horn: My gosh.
Jillian Benbow: ... super rapid, rapid fire? I mean, probably not.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah.
Jillian Benbow: But you are going to do fantastic.
Tony Bacigalupo: No one is.
Jillian Benbow: There are no negative consequences to any of your answers.
Mary Horn: Stakes are low. Okay, great.
Jillian Benbow: Yes, stakes are low. Fun is high. So, just first thing that comes to your mind. Super quick answers to my questions, starting with, Mary, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mary Horn: A baker.
Jillian Benbow: Really? Come to my house.
Mary Horn: A pastry chef.
Jillian Benbow: How do you define community?
Mary Horn: Something that you have that sticks with you over time.
Jillian Benbow: What is something on your bucket list? Whether you have one or not, that you have done? What's something great you've accomplished or done, experienced?
Mary Horn: This is really dorky, but I did get a PhD before I started community building. And so, that feels like cool.
Jillian Benbow: That's huge. Congratulations. Yeah. That's like-
Tony Bacigalupo: Doctor. Amazing.
Mary Horn: Not about community building about music, but that's something else.
Jillian Benbow: That is amazing. And I feel like we should call you doctor.
Mary Horn: Or you can skip that, that's fine.
Jillian Benbow: Not Dr. Mary. Just kidding. What is something on your bucket list that you want to do but you haven't yet?
Mary Horn: Probably hike a really tall mountain. And I can't give you specifics, but just like start going and end up at the top. And I mean, like actual outdoor hiking, although that metaphor probably applies to a lot of things.
Jillian Benbow: Right. What is a book that you just love and you want everybody to read?
Mary Horn: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.
Jillian Benbow: All right. We know you're in New York, Brooklyn. If you could live anywhere else, where would it be?
Mary Horn: On a mountain, in the Rocky Mountains. I'm a Boulder, Colorado native, so maybe in the mountains, in Rockies, somewhere.
Jillian Benbow: I know. I feel like you kind of just have-
Mary Horn: But I really love Brooklyn. It's hard. It's hard. I'm holding both.
Jillian Benbow: Okay. And finally, Mary, how do you want to be remembered?
Mary Horn: As someone who tried really hard even if she didn't always know what to do.
Jillian Benbow: Love it. Well, thank you so much. Well done on the rapid, rapid fire.
Mary Horn: Yeah. Did I make it? Did I pass?
Jillian Benbow: You did amazing. As expected, yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: A++.
Jillian Benbow: A++. Thank you so much for joining us today. So excited that we got to talk and just sharing, obviously, your own personal grief story. But also about The Dinner Party and just the value it provides to so many people. I think it's so important. And I'm so happy we got to talk about it. Where can people find a table? Where do people go if they want to, if they're interested?
Mary Horn: Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for the wonderful conversation and for letting me talk about all the nitty-gritties of this community. It's just fun and dorky and exciting to do. People can find a table or get connected to a buddy just by going to our website, which is thedinnerparty.org. You can also find us on Instagram, and all those other places where we share out when new tables are posted and all that good stuff, so, yeah. But our website is really just the only place to go. Great.
Jillian Benbow: Thank you so much, Mary.
Mary Horn: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Tony Bacigalupo: Jill, how are you feeling?
Jillian Benbow: So good, so good. I feel like just, what The Dinner Party is doing. The peer support model that they have just gives me all the feelies. We need more of that. More topics, more age groups, and not to say that they need to do that, they don't. They know what they're doing, but very inspiring for anyone who feels a gap in peer support for whatever it is, is this is your sign. There's a way to come together and have really meaningful conversations.
Tony Bacigalupo: We talked about peer support and it can be a very tricky thing for a community leader to get the hang of is trusting your people to be able to play that role for each other. And doubly so, when it's a such a sensitive personal topic as the loss of a loved one. But if you create the right environment, if you create the right structure, then you can reliably facilitate these spaces where peers can support each other successfully. And that super charges your community's ability to have a meaningful impact.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: I also really, I found it really powerful that they have this model for on ramping into an ongoing group. You and I have been talking about this in mastermind groups as recently as very recently.
Jillian Benbow: Five minutes ago.
Tony Bacigalupo: And the idea of how do you create ongoing groups of people who have a shared interest or connection when it's very hard to know, even on paper. You might say, "Okay, there's a bunch of people who all have something in common." Maybe in this case, they have a personal loss that is specific to their experience and unlike other people's experience. The idea that people might have a thing in common, but that might not actually be the thing that makes them want to hang out and talk to each other. But if you're creating these kinds of on-ramp tables, where people can meet some people using whatever excuse, whatever kind of thing in common gets you all to the same table.
Tony Bacigalupo: And then saying, "Okay, if you really like the vibe of the people that you are hanging out with right now, then you can keep hanging out with those people. And if for any reason at all, you'd to keep trying new tables, you can just keep trying new tables until you find a table you want to stay at." And that is such a graceful way of dealing with a very difficult challenge, a design challenge for a community organizer.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, it can be so hard. It's so easy to overthink organizing groups. I'm guilty of that, as you know from six minutes ago. And I like that there's a bit of a barrier to entry that if you know about the dinner table and you align with what it is they offer, and then you take the next step to join a table, the motivation is already there. And so then they know, "Okay. Pull up a chair," figuratively, literally. "And we can meet you at this point and help you find the exact table for you." There's just, there's something nice about because it takes the potential member has to put in some effort to get to the point of joining a table, it's actually quite easy on the community builders then, because the person has already come so far. That it's like, "We know you're interested. We know you're engaged." And now, we can kind of grab your hand and guide you to the next step.
Jillian Benbow: And I think it's an interesting thing to think about as someone who organizes groups as a community builder to say, "How do I?" And we kind of do with masterminds with, we have a form that people fill out. But it's like we need people to come to us a certain amount, and then we can help facilitate, but we should really just let it happen. I think that was the big takeaway I got from how they do things. Just let it happen.
Tony Bacigalupo: Yeah, there's a real value in creating the right kind of a container for people to have something in common. But then also giving them a little wiggle room to find the people they vibe with in ways that you might not be able to predict in advance.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah.
Tony Bacigalupo: We also touched at the very end, and actually in the middle of the episode as well, on some communication and emotional intelligence bits that I think are hugely valuable and important in terms of, first of all, communicating feelings. If there's somebody in the group, you're dealing with people who might be in very widely varying states of emotional sensitivity. They might be dealing with that in very different ways.
Tony Bacigalupo: How do you communicate in a peer group? How do you teach people how to talk to each other about if something is not working well for them in the moment? And equipping people with compassionate tools to be able to say, "Hey, I am feeling this way. And let's figure it out," I think is hugely helpful. And then understanding what witnessing means is hugely valuable for peer groups.
Tony Bacigalupo: If you're going to put people in breakout groups online or in person, it's so critical that they learn how to actually pay attention to one another. And a lot of times just being able to talk to somebody and see that they have just shut their mouth, and they're giving you their full attention, especially when it's something as impossible as grief, that can be enough. That can be enough for you to be creating an incredibly impactful community that really helps people.
Tony Bacigalupo: The catch is learning how to do that well and learning how to teach it to other people well. But if you can crack that, and you can, it's not super hard, you just have to get the hang of it. If you can crack that you're going to be doing really great things for people.
Jillian Benbow: That's very true. That's very true. It's worth just giving it a try. And again, I say again, because I say this all the time, but talk to your community. What do they need to feel safe and empowered enough to do that. To say, "You know what, Tony? You said something at the last meeting that kind of bothered me and I just wanted to let you know that it's totally out of touch and how could you?" I'm just kidding.
Tony Bacigalupo: See? Now, you have me scared because I'm like, "Did I?"
Jillian Benbow: What did I say?
Tony Bacigalupo: "Is this hypothetical or?"
Jillian Benbow: This whole episode was just a ruse...
Tony Bacigalupo: It is.
Jillian Benbow: ... so, I could get you on air and tell you about that thing you said...
Tony Bacigalupo: Oh, it's a digital intervention.
Jillian Benbow: ... a month ago. No, I'm kidding.
Tony Bacigalupo: Oh, boy.
Tony Bacigalupo: But really, as a community leader, it helps to learn to probably practice these techniques yourself. Look up active listening, look up witnessing, those kinds of things. If you learn how to do it, you're going to understand how to teach it better and you're going to set a better example as well that other people are going to learn from.
Tony Bacigalupo: So, go ahead and tag us Team SPI on Twitter. Let us know what you have gotten from this episode. We want to hear from you. Just shoot us a quick tweet, say hello. Let us know how this episode landed for you. And we'll catch you at the next episode of The Community Experience.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, thanks for joining. We'll see you next Tuesday.
Tony Bacigalupo: This has been The Community Experience. For more information on this episode, including links and show notes, head over to smartpassiveincome.com/listen.
Tony Bacigalupo: You can find The Dinner Party at thedinnerparty.org. You can find them on Instagram at The Dinner Party, on Twitter at Dinner Partiers and on Facebook at Facebook.com/This is The Dinner Party.
Tony Bacigalupo: Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our series producers are David Grabowski and senior producer Sara Jane Hess. Editing and sound designed by Duncan Brown. Music by David Grabowski.
Jillian Benbow: See you next time.