Bread & Salt: Setting the table for deep conversations among LRI’s alumni

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” This familiar Thomas Jefferson quote often accompanies cotemporary dinners where people with varying perspectives gather for conversations around complex topics.

But what if you were never invited to the table in the first place?

Following a hiatus prompted by Covid-19, former Executive Director Mike Ritz, 2007 Gamma II, convened a group of alumni to be trained as facilitators for what at the time were known as Jeffersonian Dinners, events LRI began hosting in 2016.

That evening Ashley Bazin, 2021 CLRI, expressed a concern that had been simmering under the surface for years: the popular alumni dinners carried the name of the man who was not only the nation’s third president, but also the owner of more than 600 slaves.

“These dinners are supposed to be a place where people can feel safe while sharing and being vulnerable. How can everyone at the table feel comfortable when it is named after someone who never would have allowed them at his table?”

Challenging conversations are a hallmark result of the dinners, and this night proved to be no exception.

“A core lesson through any LRI experience is recognizing that differences in perspective often exist without clear ‘right and wrong’ answers.” said Chris Donovan, Director of Communications and Events at LRI.

“It’s our responsibility to find the common truths that exist in between in service of a better tomorrow. In this instance, a truth was needing a name that more universally reflects the core values of the dinner.”

The name change is not without precedent. Originally known as ‘Feasts of Reason’ when hosted by Jefferson, the term ‘Jeffersonian Dinner’ didn’t become popularized until Jeffery Walker’s 2012 Ted Talk introducing the conversation format to today’s audience.

Shortly after, the LRI staff began to explore alternative names. Ritz offered an option rooted across cultures and beliefs. While each unique concept varied, the meaning was the same; starting a meal with bread and salt indicates you are welcome. The name stuck.

Board member, Bill Fitzgerald, recalls his conversation with Executive Director Michelle Carr when he was approached to be a facilitator when the dinner series re-launched in 2023. “Let’s keep the core structure of the dinner, which is a good one, but bring the name into the 21st century.” said Fitzgerald, echoing the organization’s commitment to continued growth while preserving the integrity of the gathering’s purpose.

A member of the 2018 Xi II class, Fitzgerald is no stranger to the format. His classes Leadership in Action teams used the structure with alumni and fellow classmates to identify community issues that they could address through their projects.

“There’s no better way to get to know someone than in enjoying a meal with the right dialogue.” He says. The energy and content of the discussion are participant-driven, and listening takes precedence over speaking.

At the most recent dinner he facilitated half of the participants, strangers before the evening, went out after their three-plus-hour dinner to continue their conversations.

“It’s my hope that these dinners will continue to be a place for our alumni to forge strong connections and will inspire conversations long after the dishes have been cleared.” Says Jacklyn Xavier, 2020 CLRI, who coordinates the dinners as LRI’s Communications and Alumni Engagement Specialist.

Just as it did for the group that chose to carry on their dialogue into the night.