Higher Education

My Advice to Graduates: Host a Potluck

A shot of a group of friends sitting around a table and standing in the kitchen, they are making a healthy meal and setting the table together.

A group of friends having a potluck (SolStock/Getty Images)

(Deseret News) — Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from the commencement speech given by Eboo Patel at the University of Utah on May 2.

What is the significance of holding a diploma, of crossing the stage at a university commencement?

It means that you know the world is far more complicated than you once believed. It means that you have spent the last several years growing your knowledge and cultivating your skills, and you are therefore far more capable than when you entered. It means that, at a time when our diverse democracy is deeply divided, you can be counted on to build bridges of cooperation.

There are many ways to lead in a diverse democracy. I hope you engage in all of them. Vote. Canvass. Make speeches. Start an organization. Join a club. Run for office. Protest peacefully. And also … host potlucks.

Host potlucks to save diverse democracy?

Yes. Absolutely. Let me explain.

There are many ways to lead in a diverse democracy. I hope you engage in all of them.

A potluck is the ultimate democratic form. No mayor, governor, president or general can command people to potluck. It is an event of the people, by the people, for the people. It is street-level proof of self-governance.

And, like everything else about self-governance, potlucks don’t rise from the ground or fall from the sky. Someone steps up to host them. Everything always starts with a leader. Today, I’m asking you to be that person.

By hosting a potluck, you are expressing your faith in the essential idea of a democracy: a belief in people. Potlucks don’t exist without people bringing a dish. Democracies don’t survive without people making a contribution.

There are some who think that it’s sophisticated to emphasize all the things standing in your way, to highlight all the things you can’t do. If you host a potluck, you are sending the opposite signal, you are giving the sign of democracy, you are speaking the password primeval: “I believe in what people can do, in the contribution they make, in the dish they bring.”

Now your belief in people should be tempered by a cold, hard look at reality. Yes, everyone has the potential to make a contribution, but not everyone faces the same circumstances. Some people are lucky enough to have stocked kitchens and safe transportation. Other people face barriers — racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia. These barriers don’t define people, but it makes it harder for them to make their contribution. Do what you can to reduce those barriers without letting those barriers obscure your fundamental belief in people’s abilities.

As the host, you have power — the power of the invitation. Power is good if it’s exercised responsibly and in the service of the common good. How will you use your power as the host? My suggestion: Invite a diverse group of people to your potluck.

After all, whatever your favorite dish is, you don’t want a dozen versions of it at your table. You want biryani and hummus, salad and shish kebabs, burritos and funeral potatoes.

And you want the people who come to feel inspired and empowered to bring their best dish. A potluck is an opportunity for a diverse group of people to feel proud of their various identities.

Hosting a potluck also requires skill. You need to create a space where people can engage in enriching conversations and dishes can mix in creative combinations. The magic at a potluck happens when one person’s crusty bread from Eastern Europe meets another person’s spicy dip from the Middle East. And then these people of different ethnicities and religions, who have divergent views on tax policy and environmental regulation, are sharing stories of sacred family rituals behind their best dish.

A diverse democracy requires spaces where people who disagree on some fundamental things can come together on other fundamental things.

A diverse democracy requires spaces where people who disagree on some fundamental things can come together on other fundamental things. Your potluck is one of those spaces.

The host of a potluck also has a subtle pedagogical role. You are teaching this disparate gathering of strangers how to be a community — which is to say, how to take responsibility for the common good. You signal that you need people to come early to set up, to stay late to clean up, to bring extra plates and silver, to make sure that food is properly labeled. People will follow your signal.

I hosted my first potluck a few months after I graduated from college. I wish I could tell you that all of the aforementioned lofty ideals were in my mind as I called a handful of friends to join me on a cold, February Tuesday night in Chicago. But the truth is I was just very lonely, and too poor to put on a dinner party. Also, I could only cook one dish — masala potatoes. How many nights can you eat masala potatoes alone?

And so I called six people. We had an amazing time. As they left, they told me that they were coming back the following Tuesday night, and bringing friends.

It was a good reminder: A potluck is not a dinner party. It’s more of a rock-and-roll jam session or jazz improvisation than classical symphony performance. Expect your guests to bring friends, acquaintances, people they walk by on the train.

And it shows that a leader might start something, but if that leader is doing his or her job well, the community that gathers guides the endeavor in important ways.

I worried a lot about those first few potlucks. Mostly about the vegans. I had a lot of vegan friends back then, and I still do. I was worried that they were going to be mad. Surely someone would bring meat, and the vegans would take offense.

It never happened. Because, honestly, most of the time, most people are good and gracious. People knew there were a lot of vegans coming to the potluck, and so most made vegan-friendly dishes. People who brought meat and dairy labeled their food clearly. Everyone seemed to operate on good faith and recognize that diversity is not just the differences you like.

I hope you have read and thought a lot about democracy in college. Hosting a potluck is making democracy happen in your home. It is one way to put the ideals into action. A potluck demonstrates that diversity is a treasure, that cooperation is better than division, that identity is a source of pride, that everyone is a contributor.

So hold up your little wild bouquet, plant the trees of companionship, carve out the common ground, host the potluck.

Democracy is going to thrive in the United States of America, because you are going to bring it.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”