The Lewisham Conversation


Bringing communities together to share experiences, break down barriers and find areas of common ground has always been a challenge for local authorities and wider government.


Lewisham Council has been inspired by historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin to use Conversation Dinners as its latest tool to meet these objectives.


Zeldin pioneered Conversation Dinners in Oxford under the title Oxford Muse. He wanted to create new kinds of conversation between people of different cultures, backgrounds and generations.


The Conversation Dinner follows a specific format. A venue is chosen – preferably one that is an attractive offer for potential visitors. Using publicity, contacts within different groups and word of mouth, people are invited to attend and have a meal together with a ‘menu’ of conversation topics.


Tables are for two people at the event and, critically, those who sit opposite each other are strangers. On each table is a menu of questions, laid out in ‘courses’. Each ‘course’ offers a choice of questions. For example, how have your priorities changed over the years? What have you rebelled against in the past? How have you made and lost friendships?


A simple meal is served while the conversation takes place and the whole experience lasts approximately two hours.


Lewisham Council has so far been involved with two conversations; guests to both events were invited from community groups, voluntary organisations, charities, activists, residents’ associations, neighbourhood groups, businesses active in the borough, teachers, students and council staff. Zeldin attended each one and gave a short introduction to outline how the evening would run – very few of the attendees knew about Conversation Dinners and had come to the event purely out of interest. The first event was deliberately small and low key with 30 attendees whereas the second was larger with 60 attendees. Both events were free to attend.


The evaluation forms completed at the end of the dinner were overwhelmingly positive. Guests talked of making ‘real connections’ with their fellow diners and of discussing issues that they might not have discussed even with their close family or friends. Importantly many of them expressed an interest in hosting dinners themselves with their own group or neighbourhood.


The challenge for Lewisham Council now is how to take the Conversation Dinners forward; and how to measure the benefit to the whole community. Although Zeldin wants people from different neighbourhoods, communities and cultures to make connections with each other, it is also legitimate to want people within their own communities to understand their neighbours. It may be relevant too for the Council to have the opportunity to pose questions relating to local issues that can be explored in this setting.


As well as offering assistance in developing Conversation Dinners which groups and neighbourhoods themselves can run, Lewisham Council intends developing a Lewisham Muse website which will publicise other Conversation Dinners, encourage posts on the topics explored and ultimately build a portrait of a borough, its residents, their beliefs, thoughts, hopes and fears.


Achieving this goal will take time – and importantly Lewisham wants communities to develop links with each other so they find mutual support and understanding and a realisation that everyone everywhere, as Zeldin says, is interesting.


Photo: Theodore Zeldin