Proponents of a pluralistic America often use the metaphor of a “melting pot” to talk about how diversity strengthens our nation. But what if we go beyond the melting pot and think of America at its inclusive best as… more of a potluck dinner?

Potlucks are civic spaces that both embody and celebrate pluralism. They rely on the contributions of a diverse community. If people don’t bring an offering, the potluck doesn’t exist. If everyone brings the same thing, the potluck is boring. They respect diverse identities by enthusiastically welcoming the gifts of the people who gather. They facilitate relationships between people by creating a space for eating and socializing and surprise connections. And they cultivate in people the importance of not just the individual parts and the connections between them, but the health of the whole as well.

At an October NationSwell Mainstage, some of the nation’s most acclaimed social impact leaders gathered in New York City for an in-person, fireside discussion of what it takes to bring this vision of America from theory to practice. Anchored by NationSwell Council leader Eboo Patel and ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt, rooted in Eboo’s new book, “We Need to Build.” Together, NationSwell’s gathered guests explored the actionable, tangible steps leaders can take to move us from melting pot to potluck, learning how leaders can build and support diverse institutions for equitable social change. 

3 Key Numbers

A 76% majority of Americans says diversity is good for America.

A 47% plurality says diversity makes it harder to solve challenges.

An 82% majority says our nation is divided in key ways.

3 Key Trends

An overall satisfaction: According to research from Pew, an overwhelming majority of Americans are satisfied with the racial mix of their local communities, and would prefer if they continued to be “about as racially mixed” as they currently are — even when their communities rank as some of the least diverse in the country.

From the melting pot to the battlefield: In 1908, the “melting pot” model for diverse society, which asked immigrants to effectively dissolve their distinctiveness into the dominant culture, could be considered a big step forward. But Patel says we’ve moved past the melting pot, and we now find ourselves in the full swing of what he calls the “battlefield” approach to acknowledging the way diverse cultures exist side-by-side — and while it does ultimately acknowledge a heterogeneous national stage, it ultimately pushes us to think about pluralism through the lens of an endless conflict between dominant and oppressed cultures and people. 

Our deepest divides are growing: Studies show that Americans feels more divided now than we felt 40 years ago; and as Greenblatt pointed out, there isn’t just one thing that we feel separates us from our neighbor. The way we identify through our religion, politics, immigration status, race and ethnicity, class, age, and geography play critical roles in the pervasive feeling of fracturing.

What’s Working

Embrace the potluck vision for celebrating and centering American diversity. The potluck society celebrates what Patel calls “the delicious and multitudinous ways that we’re choosing to host a feast of gratitude.” When you tell people to come, you don’t tell them all the reasons you assume they probably can’t bring a dish. For those willing to play a key role in co-architecting the pluralistic society that reflects us at our most aspirational, the potluck dinner provides us a beautiful metaphor that begins with the profound belief that people are all contributors: that they all have a delicious dish to bring to the table. 

Acknowledge the ways that we already build bridges across political lines every day. “The only way to have a diverse democracy is to have a difference of opinion, to be able to disagree on some things and work together and work together on others,” Patel said. But the good news is: We already engage with people who think and vote differently from how we do, and we already work in deeply important ways with people with whom we deeply disagree. “Heart surgeons don’t ask each other how they voted,” he noted. “In a diverse democracy, people can disagree and still work together.” As an exercise, he invited guests to think about ten things we did today in which we’re unsure of the politics of the person who did them for you, or with whom you did them.

The Challenges That Remain

Acknowledge the very real roadblocks to unity. As one guest pointed out, there are groups of people in the country who might be more opposed to joining in on a vision for America that celebrates diversity, and whom she warned “might be bringing guns to the potluck.” Patel acknowledged the reality of those fears, but centered the conversation on the productive power of coming into each conversation with an open mind, an open heart, and the belief that all people are capable of making a positive impact on this shared vision if you invite them to do so.

What To Do

Our successes are temporary if we don’t ask ourselves one radical question. Eboo notes that, within the last two weeks, we likely had an experience where we were cheering for or helping somebody with whom, relatively recently in our ethnic heritage, there has been a blood conflict. He notes that these moments represent massive achievements, but the cautions that we should recognize that these moments could be fleeting if we don’t actively work towards creating more of them. “What does it look like to ask, in a society of 33 million people, what’s going right, and how do we do more of what’s going right?” Eboo asked. “If we can achieve that in our civic life, cooperation around certain identities, can we use that as  a paradigm by which we spread that ethos elsewhere?”

The power of understating your case. Patel advises those pushing to change our institutions for the better to remember that causing dislocation and suffering is not our intention. In fact, one of the best metrics of success in our project of creating a healthier democracy will be our ability to create more of the functioning institutions that we want to see more of. “If the goal is generating dissatisfaction, we get an A+,” Patel said. “But can you build alternatives that are better? Defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do. If society is largely made up by its governing structures and institutions — like schools, hospitals, YMCAs, companies, and networks of housing — then we need to build better institutions.”

NationSwell is an award-winning social impact company that assists changemakers, thought leaders and purpose-driven business executives as they drive social impact at scale. Through a robust membership community and the nation’s leading social impact studio, NationSwell supports these impact leaders on a range of our world’s most pressing issues. Learn more here.