Food for Thought: Inclusivv facilitates conversations on tough topics over intimate meals

Jenn Graham, founder of Inclusivv.

Jenn Graham believes in the power of big ideas and taking chances.

 She arrived in Atlanta in 2006 to take classes at the Portfolio Center and had her sights set on a fast-paced tech career in San Francisco, but then the job market crashed during the global recession. She went to work at tech company Unboundry, which led her to organizing TEDx talks.

“I fell in love with Atlanta – the diversity, resilience, and innovation,” Graham said.

While she was planning TEDx talks, she realized that people were looking for different ways to engage on pressing civic and social issues. More than someone talking at them in an auditorium and certainly not heated debates and shouting matches that left people angry rather than enlightened.

“I started thinking about how to make civic engagement more fun and meaningful, and the answer was bringing people together over food,” Graham said.

In 2015, Graham created Civic Dinners, small dinner parties where people could enjoy a meal and have structured conversations about topics relevant to Atlanta. As word of these dinners spread, the Atlanta Regional Commission came calling asking for help in facilitating discussions on future planning that would impact the entire metro area. 

Then Graham started getting calls from other cities just as the contentious 2016 presidential election was creating social divide.

“I felt like communication just stopped with half my family after 2016 because of the election,” Graham said. “It was obvious this was happening all over the country. As a people, I think we lost the art of conversation.”

Civic Dinners turned its attention more sharply to social issues, partnering with the King Center to facilitate discussions on bridging the racial divide, making sure women’s voices were heard as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, and achieving what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.” 

More meals were planned and giving people a seat at the table was more important than ever. “People walked away from the dinners and conversations more deeply connected to each other and felt motivated to take action,” Graham said. “Having a conversation that didn’t resort to debate or win or lose made sure everyone at the table was being heard.”

Graham said creating a comfort level and safe space at the dinners was imperative to their success. “When people know they aren’t going to be interrupted when they share their story, and that people are listening to them, it’s transformative.” she said. “People felt safe to say things they’d never said out loud before.”

Community organizers, major nonprofits – including Teach America and the Sierra Club – began reaching out wanting to use Civic Dinner’s model to build community and drive collective action. In 2019, corporate America came knocking, including Facebook and Coca-Cola. 

Then the world shut down due to the pandemic and dinner was cancelled.

“It was super scary since we were 100 percent in-person,” she recalled. “I didn’t know if we could continue, but we held our breath and pivoted into virtual space. I realized we had to double down and make people feel more connected that ever while they are isolated.”

In just 10 days, Graham and her team created a platform and launched a video conferencing tool to keep the dinners and conversations going as the pandemic and concerns over racial injustice in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd gripped the world. 

There were silver linings in going virtual, including being able to bring people together from across the world and more access for folks like working moms and those with access to transportation. Facebook translated the Civic Dinners site into 11 languages and suddenly the dinners were being facilitated in Europe, Africa, and South America.

“It was a serious ramping up,” Graham said, which was accompanied by some “serious seed investment” – $1 million from Atlanta Seed Company, Jump Fund, Techstars and an angel investor. 

With the global growth of the startup, Graham decided it was time for a name-change that was more reflective of the company’s mission and diversified topics of conversation. Thus, Civic Dinners transformed into Inclusivv.

“If the past year taught us anything, we need more voices at the table,” she said. “The double v was intentional as we want to invite more voices into the conversation, even those we don’t agree with.”

While the surge in COVID-19 cases continues, Graham is eying going back to in-person dinners. The virtual component will remain, but she said Inclusivv is watching what the CDC is recommending. An in-person dinner has already been held in New Zealand.

Graham said there are many more conversations and dinners to be had, especially as the world recovers from the pandemic.

“We’ll be diving deep into wellness, mental health, trauma from isolation, concerns about going back to work and school,” Graham said. “Sustainability and climate change were put on hold for four years during the last presidency, so we have to refocus our energy and make sure we’re doing it with an equity lens.”

For more about Inclusivv, visit inclusivv.co.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.