How to Reinvent the Potluck

There is a powerful social aspect to sharing. It may seem obvious, but it takes two people to share. And sharing works even better with three, five, ten or even 50 people all sharing in group format. Sharing is social. And therefore maintaining healthy social relationships among sharers is a must. Call it trust-building.

Trust-building is best accomplished face to face. In my last post Six Ways to Start Sharing I wrote about how to take that first step towards sharing, and I suggested sitting down with neighbors over food. Hosting a potluck is a great way to start a neighborhood sharing group.

Why a potluck? The potluck is an iconic community gathering experience that symbolically reinforces the idea of sharing, as each guest brings food to share with the group. And anyway, potlucks are fun!

Here are some ideas on how to "reinvent" the simple potluck format so you can use it as a launch pad for neighborhood sharing:

FYI, these tips work great for neighbors in suburban areas or urban city blocks, but you can also adapt them for use in apartment buildings and condos, or dorms.

1. Start by deciding who to invite. Sharing groups require a certain amount of critical mass to be effective, so be inclusive whenever possible. Invite everyone on the block or along the cul-de-sac. Make sure at least three or more people (or families) RSVP to the potluck in order to kick off the discussion. Or consider building a sharing group from an existing community group or program: a dogwalking club or neighborhood watch program, for instance.

2. Team up with a neighbor or two and share planning and organizational tasks. You can use the help, and this mutual support gives energy to the effort that other neighbors will notice and appreciate. If you don’t know any of your neighbors, this may be an opportunity to meet one.

3. Choose a date and location. Weekend afternoons work best. If you have access to a third space -- a community center, church or park – use it. If not, welcome neighbors into your home or backyard.

4. Prepare an invite. Let people know the potluck topic via headline i.e. Let’s Start Sharing! Potluck to Learn More. Or, if you prefer a low-key approach, simply call it a Neighborhood Potluck. If your neighborhood has an email list or is organized into a Google group, post the invite there. Or slip a note under doors or in mailboxes. If you feel comfortable, put a flyer up in the neighborhood, but be forewarned: you never know who’ll show up. Always ask for an RSVP. Let folks know if kids are welcome. As for the food, here are some potluck basics.

5. Break down social barriers. Once you’re all together enjoying a meal, you may want to use an icebreaker as a way to get to know each other better.

6. Be prepared to smooth a few rough edges. Neighbors who live in close proximity often experience challenges that lead to bad feelings (“His goat ate my prized heirloom tomato plant and we haven’t spoken since!”). You may decide to tackle this one-on-one ahead of time, working with neighbors to sort through their differences. Or the potluck will be a wonderful opportunity to clear the air. Keep smiling, don’t take sides, and once everyone’s feelings have been acknowledged, you should be on a path to neighborhood recovery.

7. When the timing feels right, focus the group into a conversation about the benefits of sharing. Come prepared with a few key points that relate to your particular neighborhood situation. You may want to print out and pass around this Getting Started questionnaire to get the conversation started (make sure there are pens/pencils at the gathering).

8. Brainstorm a few ideas for a first sharing project. Ideally this first project will have a social aspect, it will be quick (an hour or two), and it will have a strong likelihood of success -- planting flowers in an empty neighborhood lot, starting a shared compost pile, group salsa dancing lessons, or a neighborhood cleanup. If possible, agree on a project, and then set the date, time and location so everyone leaves the potluck with a tangible next step.

9. Tie up loose ends. Before the potluck ends identify one person in each family who will act as neighborhood contact, and get their preferred contact info. Also, decide as a group which digital format will best help you all to stay organized and inspired (Facebook, Google or Yahoo group, a neighborhood blog). Set a date for the next meeting, and/or determine the frequency of meetings i.e. the first Saturday afternoon of every month. And also decide how big (or how small) the sharing group should be. If new members are desired, discuss who will invite them. Send a follow up email to all participants with the above info.

10. Take pictures! Documenting this first potluck is a great way to celebrate your neighborhood sharing community as it is unfolding. You can also use these pics to spread the word to interested folks who couldn't make the meeting, or to friends and family who may get inspired to host their own neighborhood sharing potluck.

Got any great potluck tips or stories? Tell us in the comments below…

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