Good 'Hoods: How did the Welcome Dinner Project begin?
Penny: The Welcome Dinner Project arose because I was hearing from refugees and migrants that had been in Australia for five years - sometimes 10 years - and no one had ever invited them into their home.
At the same time, established Australians were asking me how they could connect with refugees, I was just blown away by that. Sydney is of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and we had willing, good-hearted Australians that couldn't find an avenue to connect with newly arrived people. So we thought, what better way to bring people together than through food?
It's a beautiful thing to see people experiencing each other’s traditional dishes, there’s just so much energy around the food.
Good 'Hoods: How did the project gain momentum?
Penny: It really took off on its own, I think our team feels like it has been chasing its tail since day one. Since the first dinner in my home, we have held hundreds of dinners and lunches in Australia’s capital cities.
Good 'Hoods: How has the Welcome Dinner Project contributed to making strong, more connected communities?
Penny: Welcome Dinner guests are asked not to ask other attendees about how they came to be in Australia or to discuss work. Instead we focus on sharing stories about the food everyone has brought to share, hobbies, passions and the different experiences of living in Australia.
The result of these two requests is a shared experience of humanity. 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. People connecting over their commonalities reminds them that there is hope. The biggest shift is the change in perception of one another and confidence to connect in their communities. And for many people that one moment is enough to give them the motivation to go out and make change.
These points of connection are a launching pad for new friendships which go on to ignite all sorts of positive change.
Good 'Hoods: What were the roadblocks/challenges you faced along the way?
Penny: One of our greatest ongoing challenges has been securing enough funding to have paid employees so we can make ourselves more impactful in more. Each Welcome Dinner takes about 10 hours to organise and we pride ourselves on the dinners being accessible to people at every level. If attendees need assistance with transport, child-minding or interpreters, we provide that.
It does require a lot of perseverance, especially when I haven’t been able to pay myself a steady wage 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’.”
Good 'Hoods: What is the secret ingredient to the dinners’ success?
Penny: The answer is easy – connection.
Good 'Hoods: What have been your proudest moments?
Penny: I am proud every week just seeing people turn up to these dinners and giving of themselves to each other. I’m proud when you see the willingness of people to let go of their views and learn something from others or they tell me they realise they want to talk to their neighbours more.
Good 'Hoods: How do people host or participate in a Welcome Dinner?
Penny: Visit our website at joiningthedots.org and register as a host or a guest. We don’t always have enough people to match up in some areas and in others, we have long waiting lists. So we are always trying to balance that. Our end goal would be to have a dinner somewhere in the country every day but we need more coordinators to do that. So if people want to be a coordinator they can register for that on our website too.