It's dinnertime in Santa Fe, N.M., and six people gather around a long black table, waiting to dig into a meal of grilled chicken and shredded squash. At the far end, from a large TV screen, the rest of the guests look on – from a living room in Karachi, Pakistan.
Over the next hour or so, between forkfuls of chicken and cholay, a chickpea dish popular in Pakistan, the two groups of dinner/breakfast guests (it's 8 a.m. in Pakistan) will discuss a range of topics, from last spring's drone missile attacks to the impact of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement to Imran Khan, a Pakistani cricket player-turned-politician.
This sharing of food and views across the globe is the inspiration of Eric Maddox, founder and director of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, based in Santa Fe.
"Consume knowledge" is the project's slogan. "Talk with your mind full."
The idea behind the year-old project, Mr. Maddox says, is to bring together everyday people from different countries – most often, the United States and countries it is in conflict with – to share a meal in the hopes of breaking down cultural barriers and misconceptions.
"It's harder to ignore people, vilify people, or harm people that you've broken bread with," Maddox says over a shared bowl of brown rice and vegetables at the Flying Star Cafe in Santa Fe.
So far, those gathering around virtual dinner tables have included residents of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Kampala, Uganda; and Karachi, Pakistan. Social advocates, educators, filmmakers, students, and others have participated.
"It's important to have a diverse range of views around the table," Maddox says.
He seeks out participants in countries that have strained relations with the US. "We're probably not going to have a dinner with Switzerland anytime soon," he jokes.
Openness and mutual respect are essential to the success of the conversation.
"You have to be aware of how your own personal narrative can affect your conversation with one another," Maddox says.
Maddox's desire to help heal misunderstandings that lead to conflict between countries, spurred by his strong sense of justice and a belief in the power of food to build community, led him to create the Virtual Dinner Guest Project last spring.
Since then, he has been spending most of his waking hours trying to get the project off the ground, networking with everyone from State Department officials to overseas community-based organizations to US university professors to drum up support, contacts, funding, and venues.
The project has become such an integral part of Maddox's life that he keeps a laptop connected to Skype (he uses this Internet service, which offers voice and video connections, for his virtual dinners) by his bed, in case one of his foreign contacts forgets about the time difference.
A conversation with Maddox quickly reveals his passion for justice. But don't make the mistake of stereotyping him as a typical social justice liberal. He was raised in a conservative Republican household. A few years ago, he spent time in the Middle East, including the West Bank, while working on a master's degree in international studies. At one point he lived in a refugee camp.
During his travels, he forged relationships with people of diverse religious, social, and economic backgrounds.
Teresa (she declined to give her full name), who participated in and helped organize the two dinners between Santa Fe and Ciudad Juárez (just six hours away by car but a world away economically and politically), says she wants people in the US to know that despite media reports of rampant violence among drug cartels, many people in Juárez live normal lives and feel a strong sense of community.
Maddox has no illusions about achieving world peace through a series of virtual dinners. But the gatherings are a chance for people to learn about the world in a personal way, without leaving home. If participants walk away with a more open mind, that is a success in itself, he says.
"Talking to five Pakistanis or 10 Ugandans isn't going to get you to completely understand their experience, but it might teach you that open-minded people span the political spectrum," he says.
Eventually, Maddox hopes to provide video updates on the project's website, where participants can check in with their dinner companions across the globe and see how their views have evolved – or not.
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"Ideally, the conversation continues after you turn Skype off," he says.
"Once you have a good Internet connection set up, you can use it for anything" from virtual classrooms to information exchanges between doctors, says Sandra Zawedde, founder of the Leadership Development Foundation in Kampala, who helped organize the virtual dinner with Uganda.
One day, Maddox hopes, virtual dinners won't be such a novel idea.
"I want this to be part of a new global culture," he says. "I'd like to see every kid grow up eating a meal a week with someone in another country. Then you'd have a truly global community."
•For more, visit virtualdinnerguest.com.
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