Kitchen Table Conversations

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Definition

A kitchen table discussion is a small, informal meeting that takes place in someone's home or a local cafe. Kitchen table discussion groups are often used in conjunction with other methods as part of a wider community engagement process, as in Protecting the Snowies engagement in New South Wales, Australia. 

During the meeting, participants discuss issues related to a broader project or topic. They may be provided with a guide or set of questions from interest groups or local governments, but there is no formal agenda for the meeting (NERRA 2016).

Kitchen Table Conversations are related to Conversation Cafes, Socratic Cafés, and World Cafes.

Purpose

The aim of kitchen table conversations is to enable dialogue within the community, that is informal and relaxed. Often the discussion is part of a suite of community engagement tools, and participants can receive a guide to the issue at hand, and possible questions they might want to discuss. The conversation can be about something broad like "what is important to you?" to a specific question like "what methods could be used to control wild horse populations in Kosciuszko National Park?"

Kitchen table discussions aim to build and deepen a sense of community and explore the range of opinions on an issue. It fosters community organising and can stimulate and nurture public debate: 

"A main objective is to give interested parties an opportunity to learn from and share with each other, create a sense of community, and discuss options and alternatives" (NERRA 2016)

Participant Selection

Kitchen table discussions are hosted by volunteers who want to take part. In general they are part of a broader engagement process or connected to a particular organisation. Hosts can then invite who they want to join the discussion, generally around eight or nine people (Douglas 2014). It may be a group of friends, acquaintances or family. 

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Hosts of the discussion act as a facilitator, providing participants with any questions or information about the topic. They also lay out the ground rules, "by reminding everyone that there are no right or wrong ideas, and that everyone's contribution is valuable. The host also encourages people to listen, to ask clarifying questions, and to avoid arguing or interrupting" (Dept of Sustainability & Environment 2013). One person also volunteers as a scribe.

The discussion can last up to three hours, with the general idea being that everyone has a chance to share their opinions and be heard. Most guides includes 'starters' - either questions or information to help get the conversation going. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Kitchen table conversations have been used effectively in Australia to stimulate community engagement. Voices for Indi, a community organisation in north-east Victoria has used the kitchen table model to encourage residents to discuss issues relevant to their locale. In total 53 conversations took place with 425 participants. Feedback was provided from the individual meetings and led to the production of a community report summarising the views represented from the kitchen tables on issues of politics and representation and community concerns. The conversations in Indi aimed to redirect attention and dialogue on the genuine concerns of the electorate - as opposed to the agendas promoted by partisan politicians. Following the campaign, an independent candidate won the seat in Indi. Commentators have suggested that the kitchen table campaign played a role in this (Douglas 2014; Peake 2014).

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Kitchen table conversations have been championed in various academic fields including political science (Peake 2014), history (Abram 2007), health (Norlander et al 2000) and human geography (Kohl & McCutcheon). 

The kitchen table model has the potential to play a key role in a healthy public sphere, contributing to democratic debate through encouraging dialogue and engagement on important issues. 

Secondary Sources

Abram, R. (2007) Kitchen conversations: democracy in action at the lower east side tenement museum, The Public Historian, 29(1), pp. 59-76, available at: http://tph.ucpress.edu/content/29/1/59.abstract

Department of Sustainability and Environment (2013) Kitchen table discussion [online], Victorian state government, available at: http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/effective-engagement/toolkit/tool-kitchen-tabl...

Douglas, R. (2014) Reasserting the public interest from Australians' kitchen tables, The Conversation [online], available at: https://theconversation.com/reasserting-the-public-interest-from-austral...

Kohl, E. & McCutcheon, P (2015) Kitchen table reflexivity: negotiating positionality through everyday talk, Gender, Place and Culture, 22(6), p747-763, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2014.958063 

National Estuarine Research Reserve Association [NERRA] (2016) Kitchen Table Discussion [online], available at: http://www.nerra.org/nerra-strategies/kitchen-table-discussion/ 

Norlander, L. et al (2000) The kitchen table discussion: a creative way to discuss end-of-life issues, Home Health Nurse, 18(8), pp. 532-539, available at: http://journals.lww.com/homehealthcarenurseonline/Abstract/2000/09000/Th...

 

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