As fall rolls in, University students are coming together with local Middletown residents to sit outside, share a meal, and talk about their backgrounds. Saturday, Oct. 10 was the first monthly Middletown Potluck of the year, with students and locals gathering at Long Lane Farm to discuss this month’s theme, “Back to Our Roots.”
“Middletown Potluck has been around for about four years,” said Althea Turner ’18. “And it’s been getting bigger as time goes on. Last year we had four potlucks, all of which were very different but went really well.”
The “Back to Our Roots” theme is based on two central questions: What defines a person’s roots? Who is allowed to determine what another person’s roots are? Small, randomly assigned groups tackled these discussion topics at the event last Saturday.
“I think paying attention to one’s roots is very important because it informs them about their present and futures,” said Bulelani Jili ’16. “The intellectual discourse here at Wesleyan is not necessarily concerned with backgrounds, and when we discuss diversity we do not always get down to the roots of backgrounds. Conversation around roots helps us understand, engage, and replenish ourselves.”
One of the goals of the Potluck is to connect Middletown residents and University students. Bringing people together from different backgrounds will hopefully spur provocative conversations that would not necessarily take place in other settings.
“For me, Middletown Potluck is a simple but very effective way of creating a sense of community,” Turner said. “When you get a group of people to eat together, conversation occurs naturally. The facilitating we do is done to make sure that everyone there, especially those who are often silenced, gets a voice and are listened to in that conversation.”
The University spread the word to Middletown residents through St. Vincent de Paul, an organization located on Main Street dedicated to meeting the needs of poor and homeless people in the area. The manager passed out flyers and spoke with clients about coming to the potluck.
“We usually get a good mix of students and community members, but we are really hoping to get more Middletown families to come to our events,” Turner said. “The majority now is students and single adults, and we have recently been trying to brainstorm ways to get other populations involved.”
Regardless of where participants come from, there is always a diverse group of people with a variety of stories to share.
“When one actively engages with their past, one has a better understanding of themselves and others,” Jili said. “So, a conversation around roots is informative and impactful.”
The Middletown Potluck student group operates under a collaborative organizational structure. There are no assigned leaders or positions. The ultimate goal is to allow everyone to contribute at whatever level feels comfortable. This platform also permits people to take breaks whenever they need, and it encourages others to do more when things are looking a little slow.
“I have been surprised at how extraordinarily well this model works, as I am used to organizations having a set structure,” Turner said. “There are about 10 of us that meet every Wednesday to plan the potlucks, so I guess you could call us the core of the group.”
These 10 consistent members organize activities, cook on the day of the potluck, and lead discussions at the event itself. Although these 10 are the heart of the group, others are welcome to come and help cook, or just attend the potluck if that seems more appealing.
“One experience that I have that really sums up the inherent positivity of the idea of this group was when Professor Gina Ulysse spoke about community,” Sammi Abinder ’18 said. “The conversation transpired very naturally into just getting to know her. When she said she had a love of music, somebody offered to play guitar and we all sang. It just showed that the point of this whole thing is really just getting to know other people, which is so natural in this setting.”
The students planning the potlucks take pride in knowing how easy it is to come together regardless of previous judgments, connections, and experiences. Members of the club stated that this mission separates Middletown Potluck from other University student groups.
“This is my favorite organization on campus, and I do not say that lightly,” Turner said. “Come to our potlucks and see for yourself.”