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Dimensions: Breaking Bread and Barriers

 

The Wallace Dialogue Dinners Serve Up
Fresh Foods and Shared Ideas

Story by Terri Queck-Matzie

Good food. Good company. Good conversation. Many a cure for the problems of an ailing world has been discovered in such a setting.

The Wallace Centers of Iowa (WCI) is taking the concept to a new level with a series of Dialogue Dinners and Civility Luncheons that utilize farm-fresh food and facilitated conversation to bring people from all walks of life together to tackle issues of the day.

“It’s really about listening,” says Diane Weiland, CEO and program developer of WCI. “Every conversation can plant a seed.”

WCI’s mission is “Building Community by Engaging Citizens in Meaningful Conversation and Active Learning,” and its programming is based on the ideals of the three generations of Wallaces to call Iowa home. The organization operates from two sites: the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center near Orient — 40 acres of prairie, gardens, orchards, and meeting facilities that mark the birthplace of the 33rd vice president of the United States and founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred — and the Wallace House in Des Moines’ Sherman Hill neighborhood, home to his grandfather, Henry Wallace, agricultural activist and founder of Wallaces Farmer.

Fine linens adorn the tables at the Wallace House. The home is restored to the days of Henry Wallace; vintage furnishings and archival photos line the walls. Round tables seating five or six guests are arranged through the living room and parlor. Participants in the Spring 2012 Dialogue Dinner drift in, mingle, and hesitantly find a seat with the newly acquainted.

Dinner is served.

WCI chef Katie Routh creates magic from fresh foods. Her tools are the fruits and vegetables grown at the Country Life Center. The farm raises produce for a 67-member community supported agriculture program and the Gathering Table restaurant, as well as special events. In addition to her cooking duties, Routh conducts programming on processing and marketing locally grown foods through a USDA grant.

Fresh garden greens, lightly dressed, are followed by a fresh herb-seasoned chicken breast (meat, bread, honey, and eggs not grown on the WCI farm are acquired from local all-natural producers) on a bed of exquisitely flavored lentils. By the time the warm, bubbling rhubarb cobbler is served, the strangers who seated themselves just a short time before are becoming fast friends. The real conversation begins now as attention turns to the evening’s speaker posed in front of the substantial white marble fireplace.

The presenters for this evening’s discussion of immigration are Sherry Gupta, founder and director of CULTUREALL, and Carol Roh Spaulding, coauthor with Kay Fenton Smith of Zakery’s Bridge.

CULTUREALL is a nonprofit organization that provides multicultural education to schools and businesses through the use of cultural ambassadors who facilitate hands-on workshops. “It provides an opportunity to get out of your head and into the experience,” says Gupta.

Roh Spaulding’s book highlights the story of immigrant children as they transition to a life that is often very different from the one they left behind. Both strive to increase awareness of the challenges and contributions of the immigrant and the challenges of the receiving society. “It really is a give-and-take between cultures,” says Roh Spaulding, “New arrivals face and present challenges, but they also greatly enrich us.”

The formal presentations are followed by facilitated conversation. Each table is given a few suggested questions to guide the ensuing dialogue with an emphasis on civility and equal participation by all. A synopsis of each table’s conversation is then shared with the room for open discussion.

Iowans have traditionally adjusted to new waves of immigration with little conflict. “But we’re still pretty homogeneous, and we have to be global,” says Gupta.

There’s consensus in the historic house that experiencing other cultures is key to acceptance as Iowa’s culture becomes more global. “Iowa is unique,” says Roh Spaulding, citing immigration attorney Ann Naffier. “We have the chance to do it right.”

The topic and the conversation are indicative of a WCI gathering. Last fall’s series of Civility Luncheons, Politics and Civility, included presenters such as Loretta Sieman, a public relations consultant and former West Des Moines City Council member, and Des Moines Register editor Rick Green.

“Iowa is the birthplace of civility,” said Green. “Collegial conversation like this doesn’t happen in other parts of the country. We need more of this.”

Previous gatherings at the Country Life Center highlighted agriculture land use, local food systems, and rural economic issues.

“These are crucial issues,” says Weiland, “and they call for civil exchange of facts and opinions. It’s important to stay in the conversation.”

More information about The Wallace Center of Iowa sites and programs can be found at www.wallace.org.

Terri Queck-Matzie is a Fontanelle-based writer and photographer whose appetite is whetted by good conversation.

All photos courtesy The Wallace Centers of Iowa.

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