Civic Dinners is enjoying a boom in the meeting business that has made the Atlanta-based start-up virtually synonymous with post-protest racial dialogues in such local communities as Sandy Springs.

Governments and other organizations praise it as an off-the-shelf method for quickly gathering hundreds of people to discuss tough topics and inspire new policies. But some participants question Civic Dinners’ own diversity and expertise, especially on racial issues. And its inherently private structure may run afoul of state open-meetings laws and other government transparency guarantees.

A gathering organized in 2018 by Civic Dinners as part of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s input process. (Atlanta Regional Commission)

Civic Dinners has been a “highly successful” engagement method, especially for millennials, at the Atlanta Regional Commission, according to Malika Reed Wilkins, director of the organization’s Center for Strategic Relations. “It was certainly an innovative way for us, the ARC, to get input on some of the key regional issues,” Wilkins said.

One Civic Dinners participant, a Black woman who asked to remain anonymous, said that, especially on racial issues, the method is too “mild and conservative” and fails to challenge preconceptions of those who join.

“We live in a racist society, and not everybody agrees on that point whatsoever,” the participant said. “…I think the thing that’s most appealing for governments [about Civic Dinners] is, it’s easy. And easy is not going to solve it.”

A new way to gather

Jenn Graham, Civic Dinners’ founder and CEO, says she piloted the “structured dialogue” program in 2014 at the ARC while working as a consultant. It uses a dinner-party format, with a volunteer host attempting to gather a small but diverse group, each member of which voices their answer to pre-selected topical questions. The method is rooted in dinners in private homes, but has been expanded to large conference-style meetings. In the pandemic, the business has shifted to a virtual platform that Graham says will remain available long-term.

Graham did not invent the dinner-meeting concept. In the mid-1990s, “Chicago Dinners” about race and racism were held by a social-justice nonprofit in that city. The Chicago model has inspired other programs, such as the “Dinners by Design” conducted by Yale University psychologist Dietra Hawkins. Civic Dinners began its own “Inclusive Series” about bias and diversity due to the interest of corporate clients, Graham said.

Those topics are helping to drive Civic Dinners’ boom into an international business. Earlier this year, the city of Sandy Springs began an ongoing racial dialogue using Civic Dinners, which drew about 250 participants and is already credited with inspiring a city “inclusion and diversity commission.” For next year, Graham said, the business has been hired to facilitate Atlanta policing meetings involving the Atlanta Police Foundation and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Civic Dinners is also the platform hired by a similar but separate program called Equitable Dinners that began last year in Decatur but is also expanding rapidly to national programming. Equitable Dinners is inspired by Hawkins’ model and is focused on “dismantling racism,” says Adria Kitchens, the program’s manager. An affiliate of Out of Hand Theater, it incorporates a brief theatrical performance to jumpstart the dialogue. It was set to hold 500 dinners in Atlanta this year before the pandemic postponed the plan.

Diversity concerns

In Sandy Springs and elsewhere, some participants have questioned the diversity of the dinners themselves and the reliance on amateur hosts instead of expert facilitators and note-takers, who can be hired but are not part of the basic package. In Atlanta’s activism scene, some organizers have noted that Civic Dinners is itself a White-led organization whose method may encode biases and assumptions, such as preferring “inclusion” to systemic change.

The anonymous participant, who joined a Civic Dinners discussion about White privilege roughly two years ago, said she felt “uncomfortable” with answers given by White participants who appeared to view their mere attendance as a “badge of courage.” The method prohibited participants from questioning or challenging each other on such topics as diversity terminology or claims to have abandoned racist beliefs, she said.

“People were just sharing, and that was it,” she said. “There was just not a learning moment.”

Graham said that the diversity of her own staff is something she thinks about “all the time” and is “high on my list” to improve. “Right now, we have only two African Americans on our team out of 14,” she said, though that small team also includes three people who are Asian, one who is Latino and four who identify as LGBTQ.

Private dinners or open meetings?

As more governments employ Civic Dinners, an emerging issue is conflict between the dinner-party concept, with its presumption of privacy and intimacy, and laws that ensure open meetings, open records and other public accountability. Sandy Springs initially denied the Reporter access to its racial dialogue meetings, claiming the media would cause a “chilling effect” on discussion. The city relented only after attorney David Hudson, a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, advised that denying access violated the state Open Meetings and Open Record acts.

The city of Brookhaven also considered using Civic Dinners to host racial dialogue meetings, but instead is using the platform for a still-mysterious series of municipally funded input meetings. The city refused to let the Reporter attend the first such meeting, held by City Manager Christian Sigman in September, and also refused to record it for later viewing.

“The purpose of a civic dinner is to create an intimate platform in which a small group can share their unique perspectives,” said city spokesperson Burke Brennan in an email. “It is supposed to be a safe atmosphere for people to express themselves openly to their neighbors and their local government.”

In response to a formal complaint from the Reporter, Georgia Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo said it appeared that Brookhaven’s Civic Dinners meetings might be exempt from the Open Meetings Act, but also that the lack of case law about this new form of gathering made it impossible to say for sure. Brookhaven’s particular use of Civic Dinners makes for “an uncertain question of law,” she said, indicating that litigation would have to resolve it.

Graham said she had not thought about possible Open Meetings implications of Civic Dinners, but that the company “highly encourages” media participation. “We actually encouraged Sandy Springs to invite reporters and allow reporters to come…,” she said. “I think participants especially, when they know media is showing up, they get so excited, because they’re like, ‘Hey, this is what this is all about.’” Equitable Dinners and the ARC said they have opened their meetings to the press as well.

Graham said she did not know about Brookhaven’s meetings and that the city might be using a free version offered on the website, which would leave the company itself unaware. She said the company discourages free users from using the “Civic Dinners” term for such meetings. “We also want to be cautious about our brand name,” she said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.