Learning Together - The Sunday Symposia

After I posted this the other day, I got a wonderful email from the intrepid Jenn O' Shields, telling me about an event that she and her friends invented in order to A. Have fun, B. Build community, and C. Develop their skill sets and ignite a creative spark amongst their cohorts. Far more than a simple skill share, the Sunday Symposia involves food, friends, adventure, costumes and a free education. I was so taken by the idea that I felt I had to interview Jenn and her friend Christy Smith, who with her husband Doug, hatched the idea. Here's what they had to say:

DC: Sunday dinner symposia seems like a fresh take on the salon concept. How did it get started?

[CS] Well, my husband Doug and I started hosting Sunday Dinners a whopping seven years ago in 2002 (the year before we got married, actually). It started as a few friends pooling our alcohol resources on the day where local Blue Laws prohibit alcohol sales. We started with soup, and lots of it. Several friends were chefs (or kitchen survivors), and this gave the rest of us the opportunity to test some culinary heights without worry—someone could always help improvise us out of a jam! Doug used this as a springboard to develop his own skills, graduating from Le Cordon Bleu a few years later. We always used our friends as guinea pigs to try out whatever Doug was studying—or even whatever fancies our guests came up with! One friend brought over different batches of ice cream as he dreamed of opening his own ice cream parlour—mmmm . . . Chocolate Guinness. Another friend shared her knowledge of rolling sushi. There was Wok’n’Roll, French Night (to celebrate a friend moving back to France), Swedish Night (to welcome a Swedish exchange student), and Greek night (after our Greek honeymoon). We started writing a yearly cookbook in 2004.

Broader themes came up over the years—an in-depth discussion of our favorite albums of all time, an Amish swing set raising (to put in the frame I bought to rig my lyra), sewing and costuming nights, and a reader’s theatre of A Princess Bride. Our friends are adventurous, love to dress up, and don’t mind chipping in when there’s a theme involved! We even had a “Sunday Dinner Symposium” where guests were asked to come as their favorite Greek or Roman character; we handed out philosophy questions on slips of paper, and we all got to discuss them together over wine and olives as the night wore on. The themes have definitely hit some costume and decorating extremes, with Drag Night, Cairo Night, and the Alice in Wonderland Tea Party.

Last month, the thought occurred to me that we know so many wonderful and talented people with awesome skills and hobbies. Bonus time: They’re all willing to share what they know. Doug & I cooked up the idea of hosting Sunday Dinner Symposia. Someone can use the time to share knowledge on a certain topic with anyone who is interested in learning, the only requirement for participating would be a willingness to lead one of your own Symposia on a different night! Just between the two of us, we came up with this list, (which has been drastically expanded!): Basic cooking lesson (or cooking a specific recipe/cuisine, like vegan cooking or Cuban), salsa dancing, swing dancing, tango, flamenco Sevillanas, bellydance/ATS topics, basic aerial, yoga, photography, palmistry, drumming, music editing/Photoshop, quarterstaff, working with fire apparati, poi, basic sewing, pasty-making, woodworking, picking a cool craft off of, juggling, henna, hookah, painting, figure drawing, hula hooping, disc golf, makeup, music, gardening . . .

Jenn (our neighbor, and a definite inspiration), has been instrumental in getting the logistics organized.

[JO] I created a Facebook group for the symposia that now boasts 126 members, ranging from high schoolers to grandparents. We have two very active threads, one for people who have offered to teach, and a second listing what people would like to learn. We’ve had 21 individuals volunteer to teach something so far!

DC: How many people take part each Sunday?

[JO] Everyone in the group gets an e-mail/notice each week letting them know what the theme will be, so we’re interested to see how many people show for the most popular nights. I think we had 80 or so for the circus themed party. Its fun no matter how many people come though.

[CS] It really varies. Sometimes there are only a handful of folks for soup, and sometimes we can get 40 or so folks engaged in a Turkish line dance.

DC: What activities have you done so far?

[CS] Formally? We’ve had fire performance/safety (pictured above) and figure drawing (which turned into some modeling and acroyoga lessons for some of us!). Informally, many of the topics we want to explore—drumming, belly dancing, aerial acrobatics, acroyoga, cooking techniques, makeup, sewing and costuming—have already been a part of Sunday Dinners.

DC: What does the future hold for the symposia?

[CS] Hmm . . . I know folks are excited about an acroyoga night. We’re also discussing a “Silly Stuff You Should Know How To Do, But Don’t” night that includes driving a stick, changing your oil, sewing on a button, flipping an omelet, and picking a lock. I vote for bookmaking, and Doug’s volunteered to teach a knife skills night—you bring a veggie, and Doug’ll show you the best ways to chop it. (That’ll definitely be a BYOB—Bring Your Own Band-Aids! J)

DC: If you run out of "teachers" will you go outside the group to bring new people in?

[CS] I don’t know that I see us running out of “teachers.” Folks already want to come back to revisit themes and build on the knowledge they’ve learned. I also don’t want people to feel “trapped” by what they feel they know. Looking up cool crafts or DIY instructions on the interwebs—like your site!—is absolutely encouraged! Part of being a teacher is learning as well. That said, we have already seen new folks who have joined us for a dinner and have proposed items that they’d like to teach . . . I think it will just keep growing organically that way.

[JO] I have to agree with Christy, people tend to drift in and out of the group on recommendations from other members. I’d be surprised if we ever had to actively seek out teachers, not to say it would be out of the question, it would certainly be cool to have guest teachers!

DC: If you had any advice for someone who would like to start their own symposia, what would it be?

[CS] We’ve decided to make Symposia potluck nights. This gives everyone equal opportunity to participate in what’s happening, without being stuck in the kitchen during the event. We haven’t had any challenges with the whole teacher-student dynamic getting out of hand, but I would say: be kind to yourself and your guests. You can gently remind folks to “come to order” if you need to, but don’t feel like you need to be dogmatic about maintaining a classroom order. After all, this is everyone’s free time. It’s okay to make mistakes, and you might learn something very important from what does wind up happening.

DC: Has the symposia had an impact on the participants besides just being fun?

[CS] I have definitely seen sparks of creativity fly in various different directions. Once you give yourself permission, the freedom to try something new—to fail, even, at something new—it really opens up your mind to the possibilities in life. I have always enjoyed writing, but I’ve never written anything for publication. Watching the clouds the other morning, I came up with the idea for a children’s book—and idea I never would have had the courage to pursue if a member of the Sunday Dinner crew hadn’t suggested teaching a bookmaking class. Now, my niece will be getting a handmade book just for her under the Christmas tree.

[JO] I’ve seen a lot of people inspired to try new things, and aside from the learning, we’ve seen other wise shy or awkward people really come into their own, so their not just getting knowledge their getting confidence too.

[CS]The other undeniable impacts are the friendships that blossom. Watching people connect, genuinely, over something of interest to them both is one of the most rewarding aspects of the entire process.

Thanks to Jenn and Christy for a great interview. Girls, I swear I'm going to show up at your house one Sunday! I hope it inspires the rest of you to create your own Symposia and take your education in to your own hands.


  1. You know, that is such a great idea! I wonder if any of my friends would be interested in something like that?

  2. Yeah, Matt! Do it! I think these things should be popping up all over the country.