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Welcome to the Get Together.


This is our show about ordinary people building extraordinary communities. I'm your host, Bailey Richardson.


I'm a partner at People and Company and a co-author of Get Together How to Build a Community With Your People. In each episode of this podcast, we interview everyday people who have built extraordinary communities about just how they did it. How did they get the first people to show up? How did they grow to hundreds, maybe even thousands more members? You may have heard that we recently had an intimate live interview with Carla Fernandez and Mary Horn, two of the remarkable leaders of the dinner party.


The dinner party is a community for grieving 20 and 30 somethings. Mary and Carla are part of a team that connects groups of 12 to 15 people who share a similar age and loss experience for peer mentorship and support. They've served well over ten thousand grieving young people. If they sound familiar, that's because Carla and Lenine, the two co-founders of the dinner party, were already on our podcast. They brought us so much inspiration in the pre covid world.


So we were curious how have they navigated a pandemic and what will the future of the dinner party look like? A small group of us gathered to hear those answers directly from Carla and Mary. If you missed the live interview, you can hear all about it and sign up for the next one on our Substory. Get together at subsect dot com. In our live interview, Carla and Mary shared that while they're not going to give up in person tables, the dinner partiers have learned that some things are better, virtually like expanded access and the ability for affinity groups together online, not just folks who live near each other.


We learned so much from our little conversation with Mary and Carla. We wanted to share with you here to enjoy. I'm going to put Mary on the spot to kick off this interview with our favorite question. I think some of you have heard Carlos personal story about what motivated her and her background leading up to the dinner party. But, Mary, one of the rites of passage on the Get Together podcast is that you answer a question that we like to ask, which is you can't fake the funk for many people who are organizing a community, they have a personal reason to be doing that.


Can you just share a little bit about your story leading you to the dinner party and why you also decided to get even more deeply involved with HQ and as a volunteer now?


Absolutely. Thanks so much. I we may have seen in my bio I, I came to the dinner party because I lost my mom in twenty fifteen. She died from ALS and I was one of her caretakers for a couple of years before she died. And when she died I was halfway through a PhD program and newly married and navigating all the things that a twenty six year old navigates. And I found the dinner party because I was, I was kind of just casting about like Googling online, full sentence, Googling me and my laptop, 1:00 a.m. saying, do your Google, what do you do when you lose a parent?


And and luckily the dinner party popped up. I don't even really know if I knew what I was looking for. But what I found at the dinner party was really was really special, I think was not only that I could show up to a place and talk about grief, but it was that I could show up as my full self, as the self that was navigating all the things and careers and friends and relationships alongside navigating a future that I had never pictured for myself without someone in it that I thought would be there.


That community was amazing. I had been a participant in a dinner party. I hosted my own table. And then for the past year or so, I've been on staff. And I think the move to join HQ in a more official sense, was really motivated by a move in my own grief from kind of needing the dinner party myself acutely and to to really wanting it to exist for everyone who was looking for it. So I think being a part of the system now is a real privilege to be able to kind of offer that for anyone, whether or not they're right in the midst of having lost someone to covid or having lost someone years ago or having lost multiple people over multiple years.


One of the big things that I think Lenin said in our interview was to find your elephant, to find the elephant in the room, to find something in your life that people feel like they'd like to talk about. But for some reason, that's just not being discussed. And one of the big things that stood out to me was how when you lose a parent at too young of an age or a sibling, you feel like you said so yourself, just did not bring that up with other people and just sort of shield them from it.


So No. One, that was a big insight for me. But also, number two, thank you for sharing with us, because I know it's a vulnerable thing to have to stand up on stage and share. Carla, I'll jump to you now. I introduced the podcast, introduce you to this live podcast with some of the facts around how quickly you've grown from this back door experiment. Now you're out on your deck to this incredible community that more than ten thousand people.


Participated in all of this press bringing on new tables. You've been growing and scaling an organization that's been rapid to grow and there's clearly a need for it. And as you headed into this year with that kind of momentum behind you, what was it like in February and March as you started to realize that this pandemic was probably going to be affecting our lives? How did you deal with kind of, I'm sure, all these plans you had for the dinner party and eventually deciding to perhaps shift directions?


Can you take us back to that time for sure. And I'm so happy to be here. I feel like everything we do with you guys feels like a party. And then I was remembering that I met Bailey in a mutual friend's wedding and Bailey was the officiant. And the first time I laid eyes on you was when you were officiating this wedding and was like weeping at the things you were sharing. And I'm like, oh, yeah, of course, everything we do together has that same kind of celebratory energy, even if we're all zooming from our pajamas.


Let's be real top up only here. Yeah. Feel free to wear pujas.


Earlier this year, a couple of things happened before covid really like settled and became a reality. One, our team had a retreat in the first week of March. We all got together and Joshua Tree, where remote team across the country. So it's like a very special time for us and did all kinds of strategic planning and flip charts and goals. And what are we going to build and do and what are we going to accomplish? And it was just like the rest of the universe that one week later everything would change.


And we look back at that week and kind of laugh at like life, the thing that happens when you're busy making other plans. But we did go into this year with a real clarity around. The next chapter for us is asking the question, how do we build a foundation so that we can prepare to scale from ten thousand people, which to us feels like a big deal because this isn't just like an email list. It's actual human beings that come into in real life spaces and gather.


But how do we prepare for what might be a one hundred thousand person community? And we were kind of like heading into twenty, twenty heads down grinding. And I remember one of the weeks before a shutdown, one in particular had like a really gnarly week. It was one of these weeks that had I thought about it five years ago, I would have thought like, oh my God, I'm living my dream life. We had a retreat at Esslin that we were facilitating.


The next morning we woke up and pitched a hospital for a big partnership program. We went to the airport later that day and flew to New York for a fundraiser. And we're on the first flight out back to the West Coast the next morning. And that jet set life that everybody said was great in the early days. And we were doing that thing that we were had been aspiring to, which was just like saying yes and building relationships and hustling.


And I remember when things started to get canceled, my head was like, OK. And my body was like, hell, yes. Like we weren't going to slow down, like we weren't going to give ourselves permission to like I think we see this work as very much laying the tracks for an idea and a community that really wants to live in the world. And sometimes we've let that, like, driven us to points of a lot of burnout.


So once we were able to kind of like stabilize and figure out what we were moving into, the question became, OK, how do we step up to the plate in a way that feels real, in the sense that we've been working on grief and loss and building community around these experiences for almost a decade. In some ways it was like, holy, this is our moment, like we've been preparing for how do we help people have these kinds of conversations?


This was no longer a fringe issue. This was like something that was a national headlines. And at the same time, our entire community model was based on people gathering in real life in people's living rooms or around people's dining room tables or in picnics and parks like what is this actually look like when it's done online? You know, everyone was kind of like figuring out what is this, what is the Zoome version of what we're doing? So we took a couple of different swings at what that might be.


We kind of quickly stood up this calendar of community events where any given day of the week you could come and do a journaling exercise or come and do a yoga class and kind of frantically put together some programming, as I felt like a lot of communities did and did that for probably a month. And then finally asked our community, like, OK, guys, what do you need? What are you looking for right now? And what we heard back was like, I can go to a yoga class any hour of the day, seven days a week.


There's a lot of people providing those kinds of community spaces. What they didn't have was a person that they could talk to about their grief, a group of people that they could talk to. So they weren't as interested in these like one way teaching experiences. But what they really wanted was connections and like homies that they could talk to about what was going on. It was interesting because organically, a lot of the tables that had already been matched were meeting virtually.


They just started meeting online, which was something we'd always wondered about, like, could you have the same kind of magical, transcendent experience that you can have when you're passing someone a dish or looking someone in the eyes? Does it convert on Zoom? And people quickly kind of showed us that it was not only did it work, but in many ways it was. To get to the last barrier to entry, less nerves could mean more frequently, and we've been working since since March and April to really kind of transition our whole community to these virtual gatherings.


Larry, you could share what activities today bring dinner parties together. There's some amount of still meeting in tables and anything to add about how that works and any other activities that you're hosting now. Yeah, so most of dinner party programming happens through virtual tables or through the buddy system, which is a one on one peer connection. I can speak most about virtual tables and those really look a lot like our in person tables. They just happen on Zoome. Like Carla said, I think it was a question mark for us of like, well, this kind of make the same magic as it has and it looks different.


Yes, it looks different. And I think one of the things that we've said to like new hosts coming online to host virtually is like we're all coming with new stuff. We're all thinking about more. It's a different context, but we should still gather. And overall, it's been really exciting to watch. People still just want to come and have open and honest conversation about grief with other people, with their peers who have been there, too. We're not really delivering as much anymore as we used to or our tables aren't or virtual tables aren't.


But still, I think people are kind of finding ways to make it feel like a communal experience. So I know hosts have said everybody make a grilled cheese before you hop on and then we'll all kind of like community together. Or somebody gave their table like a collage project to do between meetings. And then the next gathering was kind of about talking about what came up while they were working on that. Some people have bring bring an item that reminds you of your person to kind of get conversation going and kick things off.


It looks similar, it looks different, but it's all kind of built on the same principle of like let's get together and talk and just be with one another. Let's make space for that. Yeah, I love it. You kind of mentioned those maybe rituals and what transpired or not. That was something that really stood out to me from the interview we did with Carla and Lenine. She must have been nearly a year ago was in particular the toast there.


There's a ritual rite of raising a glass to the person who brought you the dinner party, the person that you lost and really stood out to me as things like that are the difference between a dinner party that may feel flat or perhaps unemotional and something that really fosters connection. Are there any other insights that you think are worth mentioning or noting to an audience of community builders about how you thought about these virtual tables like size or any kind of guidelines that you think are valuable for people thinking about this transition to give you kind of like an idea of what virtual tables look like?


We onboard volunteer hosts just the same as we did for in-person gatherings. And then those hosts write little bios about themselves and then we post their tables and people actually sign up for tables themselves. Now, we used to do a hand match so every single person would submit something to the dinner party. And then we look over their information and we can match them to a table. Now it looks a little different and then we kind of give the agency to the dinner partiers and say, here, all these tables open, sign up for the table that resonates with you with a host that you feel like you want to connect with.


And so that's been really fun to watch. People like have that choice, have that agency and be able to kind of gather intentionally in a way that is way with way fewer barriers than we've seen, like the perks of the virtual system in some way or that like if you see a host you want to connect with, you can just pick to be at that table. And that's great. It doesn't matter if you can't drive to their place or if you're allergic to a dog that they have or all of these things that might come up.


Our audience was asking about how that might have opened up the community to more people of being able to say, hey, if you want to come to this event instead of the hand matching and feel like hand matching was so crucial to the beginning of the dinner party, probably to get trust built and people to feel like, oh, this is this is a space where I can feel safe and I can be with my people. But you're at a kind of a good stage to move like you have this trust, you have this validation that the community is special and that people treat each other really well.


And I think it's an interesting evolution of the idea. Carla, did you want to jump in with any other learnings about the virtual spaces? Yeah, one other thing that's emerged like we've been using that word a lot in twenty twenty is when we did some surveying asking our community what they needed, some folks were like, honestly, I don't want to deal with the doodle pull and a bunch of strangers. I just need a person who gets what I'm going through to talk with.


And we kind of looked at that information and we're like, I guess there's some kind of like one to one buddy system thing here. And we threw it together with a really simple Google form, like really high tech over here, high tech systems.


I love the scrappy stuff. It works the best. It always works the best for your end user. It's like to see. Google for and so we've been basically matching people one on one who have similar grief experiences, who maybe live on opposite coasts but have been through something similar, and we're getting some of the most moving testimonials from that. And that required us to be like, oh, wait, this definitely isn't a dinner party. It's not a group.


They're sort of these rules that we thought were required before for this work to work. But actually, at the end of the day, it's just about people having that connection. It's about the person literally in their pocket that they can text or call, and that's continuing to grow. And I don't think we'll ever go fully back. I think we're actually learning that there are some things here that will are better. Virtually all those are going to join us on screen, just guarding the room.


All right.


In a second, are you considering going back to in-person events in a post covid world or doing both, or do you feel like meeting virtually is a better way to do it? How are you thinking about moving forward?


I think one of the cool things is that we're learning it probably will be a both. And like I think we're no we're not going to give up in person things. If we can have them again, we'd love to be able to gather. But at the same time, some access things with virtual tables that have been so meaningful seem like it really could keep going. A couple of things that we've learned like. Right. Not only can we with virtual tables serve communities where there might not be a critical mass to start a table.


Those people can then join a table or join a group with anybody else from around the country who in a similarly rural place, for example, there's also things now if someone's in a wheelchair, they don't have to ask. Their host apartment building is accessible. So there are access things that are made more possible. We've heard from parents who have young kids who are saying, oh, if it's just on Zoome, I don't have to I don't have to find child care for the evening.


So I think all of those things lead us to say that this could exist really well in parallel or in addition to in-person gatherings. And then a couple of other things like we've seen a lot of affinity spaces pop up that are really neat. So one thing in the dinner party, we referred to affinity spaces as a space that is built by and for people who share a particular lost experience or share a particular identity. So for us in virtual spaces, this means we have tables reserved for people who've experienced homicide, loss, suicide, loss, loss to addiction, a lot of specific types of loss where if you're in a city, you might not meet 15 other people who share that same experience.


And so the virtual access makes it possible to have we have two homicide loss tables where people have written and said, I didn't even think I would meet someone else, we'd lost someone to homicide. And so that seems really powerful, even if we add in-person events back in that those types of connections would be really meaningful going forward.


There's the loss of sort of an in-person experience. But when we are forced to think about what it means to do something virtual, there are there's this ability to connect folks in more specific ways to match people and even more specific ways that this kind of informal barrier to doing that.


Before we had we done virtual tables once, really only once before. And it was a partnership we did with Outward Bound, where we sent a bunch of people into the woods together. And after that super trust building relationship, cementing experience, they were super down to me virtually. So we went into the pandemic with a sort of assumption like, oh, this only works at first. There are in person and trusting relationships built and really had kind of it's so funny how we get we arrive at these insights and are like, OK, this is truth, not worth messing with this.


And the pandemic has totally forced us to like, take these assumptions that we very smartly made drawing from experience and realize that they were kind of maybe the clock or actually maybe the world is changing so quickly that all of the things that we believe to be hard and true are changing as well. So all the kind of rules of the games are in motion as well. I think that's the weird thing about the pandemic is I think there's like an assumption that maybe people wouldn't get as excited about like an online event in a world where you could have in-person events or like have an in-person table.


But now we're all, at least in the United States in the same context, which is like this is the option we have. So we make room for it. So the world, I think, has shifted in some ways, too. I'm so curious about, I guess, what that's going to mean for the coming years of our lives and in terms of all the rules of the game shifting. I think one thing that anyone who hears what you're doing understands is that people really need the opportunity to talk about perhaps the most painful things in their lives with other people who share that context and can really help them feel seen and heard.


And that's part of why the dinner party is so powerful and sounds like a lot of what people experience, maybe depression, anxiety, different challenges are only growing right now, isolation. And you have a format that helps people navigate that perhaps with a really common shared experience. Have you thought about expanding beyond the shared experience of grief, given what you're seeing in. And the fact that perhaps the rules of the game are changing, it's been such a key part of who you are and all of your shared experience.


How do you see that?


There's sort of two parallel worlds that we're traveling right now or exploring that question. The first one is that pretty early on in this work, folks started to approach us and would say things like, I haven't experienced a death loss, but I had a miscarriage or my relationship is over with someone or someone who may be physically present, but mentally not because of mental illness. Can I come? Can I attend a dinner? And we did some early experimenting.


What became really clear was the power of this work is actually in the specificity of the shared experience. So I think it can be easy and community building circles to be like everybody hang out, let's become friends without having like some common kernel of truth between everyone. It can feel like it doesn't actually drop in to like what someone's actual experience was. So we very much had it in the back of our heads, though, as we've been building the dinner party that like what we're doing is preparing a model like a mega case study that we can then apply to other loss experiences.


Mary's been leading. A lot of this work internally is basically developing like what are we learning here? If we were to white label this structure community and apply it to another kind of isolating experience, how would it function? What would have to be different? Who with the right partners be? So if you one of the communities that you guys are a part of or are leading, you think there's sort of a need for more peer care spaces? What it really is, is about how do we build in spaces for a peer driven collective care?


We would love to talk to you. And then the other path we're traveling is this year we started doing some trainings within workplaces that people started to come to us sort of asking like, oh, crap, grief and bereavement leave. And these sorts of things have never been on my priority list as an H.R. or a talent or culture people person. But now I'm going to need to do something along these lines. So we've been going into organizations and training them on how to be grief sensitive.


How do you train managers to have conversations with people on their team who are grieving and that work? We've been really opening the aperture and not looking at it, just grieving the loss of a person who died, but grieving loss of normalcy, grieving loss of financial stability of child care, the ability to leave your house once a day and go to an office. And there's been times where internally we're like, is a stretch. Are we doing our work a disservice by kind of broadening it out in that way?


But grief is something that is experienced after we lose all kinds of different things. Even things that can be discombobulating are hard. And we're really excited to be kind of taking everything we've learned about grief, maybe in its most extreme experience of the death loss and applying it to grief across all of these different losses we're all going through right now. I would love to ask to do a round of applause, a virtual round of applause, which might be a little funky.


But I think the work that you are doing, marrying Carla is so powerful. And the fact that it all comes from your own personal experiences of pain makes it even more courageous and beautiful if everybody's down. If you want to hop off your muite, let's give Carla and Mary a little round of applause.


So, yeah, I go if you want to connect with the dinner party, you can reach them at the dinner party. Doug, thank you to our team. Thank you. Wild sound for engineering and editing this episode. Greg David for his design work and Katie O'Connell for marketing this episode and producing the event. You can find out more about the work we do as people in company, helping organizations get clear on who their most important communities are and how to build with those people by heading to our website people and that company.


Also, if you want to start your own community or supercharge one, you're already a part of our handbook is here for you.


Is it get together book dotcom through, grab a copy.


It's full of stories and learnings from conversations with community leaders like this one, Mary and Carla. And last thing, you don't mind if you enjoyed the podcast, please review us or click. Subscribe and help us get the podcast out to more people. Thank you. Talk to you soon.