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Improvisation and food conversation

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This week, this Examiner is attending the Ashoka U Exchange at Brown University. A branch of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, Ashoka U seeks to support social innovation in higher education.

With my Food Sol hat on, yesterday I led a Community Table for 35 students, faculty and administrators from colleges across the country and the world. It’s always fascinating to watch a Community Table, amongst a diverse group of individuals who don’t know each other or the process, and who come at food from different disciplines, backgrounds, and career stages, spontaneously sprout.

All we say is: “We’re here to talk about food. You can talk about whatever you want to talk about.” The conversation unfolds by itself.

Just before Community Table, Food Sol co-founder Cheryl Kiser, who is also the Executive Director of the Babson Social Innovation Lab where Food Sol lives, led a session with Elizabeth Isele on improvisation and entrepreneurship.

The two dovetailed nicely because Community Table is all improvisation. There is no script. There are no rules, except that one person speaks at a time. You can come when you want, leave when you need. You don’t have to raise your hand, and you can say whatever you wish as it relates to food and the food system.

In essence, this means you can say anything because food covers everything: psychology, sociology, anthropology, science and agriculture, healthcare, finance, technology, policy, environment, art, literature, spirituality – and on and on.

Watching the Table grow bolstered in me the notion that even in our modern-day, device-drenched culture, we have not entirely lost our intuition or our capacity for actual community dialogue.

“Community meetings” may conjure up the thought of politics and people turning out to defend their hardened positions. But real community dialogue is improvisation: deep listening, playing off of one another, and the sense that you don’t know quite what you’re going to say until you say it.

During introductions, a young woman from Texas said, “I am a lone traveler. So it is really nice to find a community here.” Across the circle, few introductions later, another woman echoed her sentiment.

The aspiration of every Community Table is to unearth and share important thinking about food. But these two “lone travelers” also reminded us that food, at its root and beyond survival, is about human connection.

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