In Penny’s words …
Who inspires me: Everyday people “being the change they want to see” is what inspires me.
Best advice Take the courage to say “no” to some things because of the greater “yes” burning within you.
Australian woman Penny Elsley was picking her way along a drain in an Indian slum, stench assaulting her nostrils, filth at her feet, when she witnessed the sight of pure happiness. Hearing the sound of women calling cries of welcome, she raised her gaze to see a group of women poking their heads out of cardboard box homes with great smiles spread across their faces.
Penny found the sight of these joyful women so at odds with their depressing surrounds that their image stayed with her. The looks of pure joy on their faces became etched in her mind as she talked to her friends at home. The sight of their happiness sparked something deep inside her – a question she knew she had to explore. How could it be, she pondered, that these women with no material possessions, living in squalor, seemed far happier than her and her privileged friends in Sydney, Australia?
How could it be … that these women with no material possessions, living in squalor, seemed far happier than her and her privileged friends in Sydney, Australia?
Magic in connection
Fast forward 10 years and a door bell sounds in the middle class suburb of Dianella in Perth, Western Australia. An Italian woman bustles to the door and gushes a welcome to the stranger before her. Soon another stranger arrives, and another. It’s not long before a group of new and long-term Australians are seated around the dinner table – people who’ve never before met are now bonding over food. These strangers have come together as part of Penny’s Welcome Dinner Project, where trained facilitators create a safe space for people seeking to meet one another in a supported way. Welcome Dinners are now being staged in local homes across the country as a way of bringing together groups of strangers – refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, international students and Australians – around the kitchen table to share a pot-luck meal and conversation. The results of this simple act of sharing and connection are changing lives, as once-isolated people begin to connect with their communities, sparking new friendships and changing perceptions.
Such is the success of the Welcome Dinner Project that it is now attracting high-profile attention. The program featured on Channel 10’s TV show “The Project”, where celebrity Matt Preston from Masterchef joined the dinner. Several crowd-funding campaigns to keep the venture going have raised more than $60,000.
What’s the secret to the dinners’ success? The answer is easy, says Penny. “Connection” – the very thing that the joyful Indian slum dwellers had over many Westerners.
The results of this simple act of sharing and connection are changing lives.
Cut off from the world
The importance of the notion of connection came to Penny slowly at first – revealing itself in moments like seeing the women in the Indian slum. And it clarified in flashes of insight during her two-year quest around the globe: moments like the time she caught a glimpse of white in the bush and stopped to investigate while travelling through remote Kenya. “What I found was the poorest school I’d ever seen,” she recalls. “There was grass growing as high as my waist, no doors or windows to the classrooms. It was really dry, they were experiencing drought, and when I walked into the classroom the children started to cry.”
Having never before seen a white person, the children were terrified by the sight of her skin, of her clothes, her sunglasses, pretty much everything about her. Though their shock quickly turned to curiosity and excitement, Penny later discovered that these children were in fact starving, their food supply cut off for months due to drought. How could it be, she thought, that in an increasingly ‘connected’ world, some communities were becoming ever-more disconnected? Again the notion of connection, or disconnection, stood out.
How could it be … that in an increasingly ‘connected’ world, some communities were becoming ever-more disconnected?
Joining the dots
The notion of connection finally crystallised when, at the end of Penny’s two-year quest for meaning around the globe, she found herself striking up an unlikely friendship with 80-year-old man in New Mexico, where she was studying at the Centre for Action and Contemplation. Chatting with the man she questioned what she was going to do with her life. His answer was simple. “Penny, you’re going where the dots are not joined.”
His answer sparked something deep inside Penny. She embarked on furious journaling sessions to elicit an answer. Visions swirled before her – the connected Indian woman and their smiles, the isolated children in Kenya, her friends too distracted by technology and chronic busyness to connect with the people around them. He was right. Joining the dots was the answer. Human connection was the antidote to misery. And she’d do whatever she could to help others spark the connection missing from so many lives.
Human connection was the antidote to misery.
Changing lives – over dinner
Home in Australia Penny launched the not-for-profit ‘Joiningthedots’. She started working with existing service providers to help them work together, rather than in isolation. “The work of Joiningthedots is based on the conviction that the root of all social problems is disconnection,” Penny says. “Our work is to help build on this so that we can reconnect with ourselves, with our communities and with the earth.”
Working on a program with refugees, Penny found herself chatting to group of Sudanese women. One woman lamented the fact that, despite five years of living in Australia, she’d never been invited into an Australian home. Another woman close by spoke up. For her it had been 10 years without such an invite.
Not long after Penny was at a leadership program when someone requested an introduction to one of the refugees with whom Penny worked. This man bemoaned his failure to meet newly arrived people in his community over the past 10 years. “I just thought, here we are living in such a culturally diverse city and even people who want to meet each other aren’t finding a platform to do so,” Penny says. The quandary got her to thinking. How could she create a scenario where such people could meet? She consulted, she pondered, she met with like-minded individuals and community organisations. And, finally, she hosted a dinner of 20 strangers in her Australian home. “It was extraordinary,” Penny recalls. “It made people realise that they all share something in common with someone else, despite their background, despite where they’ve come from.”
“The work of Joiningthedots is based on the conviction that the root of all social problems is disconnection.”
Since that dinner the Welcome Dinner Project has ignited across the country. More than 100 Welcome Dinners and lunches have now taken place in capital cities Australia wide, including several large-scale dinners, such as at the Open Marrickville Festival in Sydney where 250 newly arrived and established Aussies turned up with their dish in hand. More than 200 volunteers have completed the Welcome Dinner facilitator training, giving further evidence to the rising of this grass-roots movement. Guests are requested not to ask others about how the came to be in Australia or where they work. Instead they discuss the food they’ve brought with them, their hobbies, their experiences of living in Australia and what they are passionate about.
The result is a feeling of equality – a shared experience of humanity, somewhere a refugee can chat with a high-income-earning local Australian, where an international student can rub shoulders with an asylum seeker or be welcomed by an Aussie family and finally feel like they are “at home”. “We have people like asylum seekers with no work or study rights sit around the table with people from affluent suburbs and they talk about what they have in common,” Penny says. “For one moment it reminds them that there is hope. And for many people that one moment is enough to give them the motivation to go out and make change. The biggest shift is the change in perception of one another and confidence to connect in their communities.”
“For one moment it reminds them that there is hope.”
Spark for change
One Welcome Dinner participant had been living in immigration detention with other people from his homeland. He’d been in the country 18 months and hadn’t talked to an Australian. He attended a Welcome Dinner picnic where he revealed he’d been a photographer in his homeland. He started taking some photos of the picnic with a borrowed camera. He found his confidence. He became involved photographing other dinners. “Now he has so many friends I have to book a time to see him,” Penny laughs.
Or there’s the women who started exercising together, those who joined a community garden, those who invited their new friends to barbecues. The Welcome Dinners are a launching pad for new friendships, they spark a night of connection that can ignite all sorts of positive change.
The Welcome Dinners are a launching pad for new friendships, they spark a night of connection that can ignite all sorts of positive change.
Being the change
Penny relishes the opportunity to help people find the sense of community that has been missing. And yet, it’s not all easy. It’s been a fulltime, volunteer role. She has persevered despite, at times, having little money to live on. And the project is a lot of work. But Penny is buoyed by contributions of the volunteers who rally alongside her, by the positive changes she sees. She’s convinced it’s her life calling. “It does require a lot of perseverance but it’s based on a conviction that it’s what society needs. You have to know it’s much bigger than you. And I’m just so thankful that the Australian community has believed in something like this. They’ve believed it’s possible to change the conversation. As Gandhi says ‘you have to be the change you want to see in the world’.”
“They’ve believed it’s possible to change the conversation.”
Get involved …
The Welcome Dinner Project encourages anyone who is new to Australia in the past 10 years to sign up to attend a dinner via: www.joiningthedots.org.
Anyone can volunteer to host Welcome Dinners in their home or become a Welcome Dinner facilitator. Find out more at www.joiningthedots.org.