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The Enchanted Arts Festival Series: Michael Hebb – Talking about taboos & curating new models for meaningful conversations…

An interview with Michael Hebb - Interview and research by Antonia Boorman, global citizen and cognitive neuroscience student at Minerva Schools at KGI.

Michael Hebb is an innovative and influential cultural figure, entrepreneur and activist, described by the New York Times as an “underground restaurateur, impresario and provocateur.” He believes that the dinner table is one of the most effective (and overlooked) vehicles for changing the world. Since 1997 Michael has been staging invitation-only salons and dinners where guests from multiple disciplines and various backgrounds focus on specific themes or ideas. These “convivial gatherings,” as he terms them, have taken place on five continents and have started conversations over important topics such as climate change, gender equality and death among communities and world leaders alike. Michael is a partner at RoundGlass and his book "Let's Talk About Death" (DaCapo/ Hachette) publishes on October 2nd.                                                                                                           

We had the pleasure of meeting Michael to discuss his views on why it’s important to open up new spaces for dialogue and create new models for social engagement like the Enchanted Arts Festival. He has been running a series of dinner conversations among adults discussing taboo topics such as death, gender inequality and global warming problems and aiming to unlock our potential to incite change. He plans to join us next year in France as he kicks off a new series of Death Over Dinner talks in France and throughout Europe…

Q. What sparked the idea to start Death over Dinner?

The dinner table is significant for many reasons. Death over Dinner is just one of our platforms that have set out to create safe and profound experiences to discuss important topics. It’s aim – through the discussion of taboo topics, such as death – is to provide a healing experience to all involved. 

“I come from the belief that the most powerful healers are your friends, your family and your community, they are the ones who will be with you more than your therapist, they are the ones who will reflect “you” back to yourself. “

The opportunity that these discussions provide are about understanding how to empower the individual and community to heal together. So how can we engage them in our healing?

Simple! Talk to them! If we think about the places in our lives where we are most safe, where we are drawn together for an hour or two, the dinner table is top of the list, there’s an unspoken contract around the engagement. When I sit down in a therapist’s office I know I will have 50 minutes, dinner, also has an implied container to it…. It can be a sacred space without a time limit.

When we think about eating together and the role it’s played in our culture; it has been the unsung hero of the most powerful ideas in society. For example, the Greek symposiums gave birth to our justice systems and the idea of democracy. If that was just an idea yelled about in a public square or political space, it just wouldn’t have been heard or had the opportunity to be expand upon and to take shape as it did. It required the integration that the table provides. Throughout time, eating together has been this incredible vehicle for our collective evolution.

In the current context, we’ve forgotten how to eat together; we’ve forgotten what it means to have a deep engagement at the table. For me, it was all about how do we reinvigorate the dinner table as a cultural institution and remind people of what it’s all about. 

“Nowadays, people are glued to tech, connecting on social media,  but disconnecting from what’s really important — the meaningful interactions from the people surrounding us.”

 The discussion is crucial to having a wonderful dinner experience. You can go to Noma or the best restaurant in town and still have a terrible time if there’s no human connection. It’s about reaching people with what it means to have a meaningful discourse at the dinner table. We chose death because it’s something we all have in common, it’s not something we discuss in our culture; it impacts us financially, spiritually, and emotionally. Facing mortality is the best way to come to know ourselves. It’s in every wisdom tradition. Reflecting on death is the most powerful and quickest way to understand how we want to live. Thus, ‘Death over dinner’ is a perfect storm.

Q. Tell us more about the topics discussed?

These are not platforms you build lightly or that take a short amount of time. If you are going to empower people to engage in a vulnerable experience you want to make sure you’ve considered it from every angle. After the successful launch of Death over Dinner, I started to work with the same team to build a follow up model called: “Drugs over Dinner” as a partnership with Dr. Oz, Gabor Maté, The Surgeon General and Arianna Huffington, which has been a success, but never quite hit the same global nerve as Death Over Dinner. The goal with Drugs Over Dinner is to look at addiction. Look at how we cope, how we fill our lack of human connection with substances or by being a workaholic, or an obsessively exercising or through sex addiction. The many ways we look for meaning and human connection in ways which aren’t the most healthy. We wanted to explore if we could lift the taboo over addiction, as we did with death, and have people begin this difficult conversation. Could parents have a tool to talk to their children? Could we talk about healing and plant medicines and other psychedelic modalities? Could all of this happen in harmony? Over dinner?

We’ve also developed “Earth to Dinner” – with the UN and GOOD Magazine. We recently tried out a new pilot based on civic engagement at the Obama Inaugural Summit, and or working with dozens of other organizations on a variety of other topic-based models.

Currently, we are working on a platform called: “Women Teach Men”. I have two daughters; one 17 years old and one who is 9 years old. I hate that the world they have to grow up in is still filled with a lack of equality, the risks they face as young girls and young women and the lack of safety. We started to gain steam before the #metoo movement, it came from a long inquiry into how we identify and heal misogyny. Striving to understand what changes we should make to ourselves personally and what change can we create culturally, politically, structurally and professionally. Originally the idea for Women Teach Men came from an all men’s retreat, when a friend suggested that we invite a woman to our next men’s gathering to drop the knowledge. It hurt my head to think that I didn’t have other examples of men asking women for knowledge at scale. The only example I could conjure: the Oracle of Delphi, when ordinary men or powerful men would come to seek wisdom from women en masse.

“Without that piece of men being willing, desirous and wanting to glean wisdom from women, we will have a hard time creating equitable balance.”

I have no ideas what the future of this project will be, but from watching the climate in the middle of the #metoo movement, I’ve noticed that men have gotten very silent. For all intents and purposes, they have left the conversation. So we have women stepping into their power, being brave enough not to be run by shame, and are willing to claim their personal history, to show their wounds and march together. There is #MeToo and #TimesUp, but where are the men in all of this?

I’ve found that men are quiet because they just don’t know what to say and they are scared. When the conversation arises you will watch men exit or go silent and that for me is incredibly dangerous for a lot of reasons. 

“The future of gender needs to be creatively discussed by men and women and the whole rainbow and intersectionality of gender in order to make it sustainable. It will not last if it’s not a multi-generated conversation.”

 Women have been having this conversation in very organized ways for the past 100 years, from having to fight for the right to vote, and gaining so many other basic liberties, yet men haven’t had that rigor, or training or introspection. And without literacy you lose your voice… For me, that is the real solution. How do we get men to a level of gender literacy where they can enter the conversation more informed? Women Teach Men gives men some literacy to have the courage and humility to listen and learn from powerful women, not just about harassment in the workplace, but also to learn about business and creativity and crypto-currency and wilderness survival. This gives them both courage and humility, understanding gender dynamics more and enabling them to feel empowered to step back into the conversation.

Q. Do you have specific examples about changes that have happened around the dinner table?

The discovery of oxygen happened over the dinner table! Cubism was born, radar imagined. And personally, I’ve seen remarkable things happen over dinner. I hosted President Kagame and President Mary Robinson for the Clinton Global Initiative. At the time, Kagame was being called out as a genocidaire by human rights organizations, but he was willing to come to dinner, so we focused on having a conversation about ending genocide in our lifetime. Rather than casting aspersions, we turned the conversation around. That dinner was transformational; I don’t know how much of an impact it had on Mary Robinson’s decision to become chancellor of Great Lakes; but now she and Kagame are working together all the time. As far as I know this dinner was the first time they had come together.

“I have seen dinners change the way people die, and more importantly the types of treatment and care path they choose.”

I met a stage 4 cervical cancer patient at a Death Over Dinner; she used it as a platform to engage with her family who wouldn’t talk about her illness. The conversation opened up incredible agency for her, and in the end she pushed pause on allopathic treatment, and began working with Gabor Maté, and through plant medicine and diet change was able to move her cancer into remission. To watch her whole life change and for her to step into this incredibly empowered place where she finally saw her body as an ally and not something that needed to be repressed was extraordinary. She would have been unable to get to this empowered place without having the discussion with friends and family.

With Death over Dinner, we don’t hear all of the stories. We don’t know all of the people who have used the toolkit. It’s a gift, a safe place, we don’t track it. Yet in this Yelp culture we are part of there’s no doubt that if there had been something negative, people would have reported it… So far so good.

Q. Why do you think the Enchanted Arts Festival is a model you would like to work with in the future?

We forget that beauty is an essential part of our evolution. When we think about the genesis of all the great religions and wisdom traditions and when we think about how nature works… it all starts with beauty. Take the extraordinary quality of a flower; all of this energy is given to this gorgeous thing to attract bees. A flower says, I matter enough to been seen, my DNA wants to continue. We often miss the importance of beauty in our evolution, politics, in how to change the state of the world we live in. The set and setting is as important as the medicine itself…and the festival is the ideal setting.

My newsfeed is not beautiful… Yet the festival, what we are all creating here, is the ability to consider profound questions and have profound experiences in a place of extraordinary beauty and intention. The ideas of bringing a Death over Dinner to that space only deepens the opportunity as how powerful it can be. It will unlock and enliven parts of people that they generally don’t have access to. I look forward to our plans to expand Death Over Dinner into Europe and hosting a dinner at the Chateau next year in 2019!

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