Steve Sokol and Melanie Harrington moved to Pittsburgh at about the same time; they both relocated for work: both taking the helm at nonprofits, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and Vibrant Pittsburgh, respectively; and they both lived downtown. They got to be friends. And as new friends often do, they talked about their situation—new city, new jobs, far-flung friends and families. So they hatched a social plan: a way to meet people without having to wear a nametag or utter those five dirty words.
You know the ones. “So…what do you do?”
The process of settling in to a new city can be confusing and lonely, but with a few friends, it’s less of a chore. Sokol and Harrington aimed to get brand new Pittsburghers and old hands together over food and drink to fast-track creating personal networks.
“It was a way of helping newcomers meet other people beyond people they were meeting through their jobs,” says Sokol.
The first Dine Around was held in Sokol’s apartment in the fall of 2010. The concept was a hit, but its existence was sustained, in part, by a surprising realization: many of those first Dine Around participants found Pittsburgh to be friendly, but not particularly welcoming.
Now, if you’ve been keeping track of the city’s seemingly inexhaustible list of accolades, it may be news to you that Pittsburgh isn’t welcoming: we’re livable, we’re beautiful, we’re happy. Don’t we throw our arms open to one and all?
Demeshia Seals, Executive Vice President, COO of the Massaro Construction Group and a former Dine Around attendee, says the disconnect between friendly and welcoming is due in part to the rooted nature of Pittsburghers.
“In other cities that I’ve lived, Baltimore or D.C., there are very large transient populations, no one’s really from there,” she says. “Here, everybody is from here. So it’s hard to appreciate that people who aren’t from here don’t have an extended network of people they can take for granted.”
Sokol agrees. Many Pittsburghers have a personal network built over a lifetime that makes them feel happy and fulfilled, so they don’t necessarily need to make new friends.
“It’s not a negative,” he says. “It’s just that that new person has a hard time eking out a little bit of space in a Pittsburgher’s life.”
To help newcomers find a foothold is important on an individual level, but is also crucial to the city’s well being. Pittsburgh’s demographics are shifting. While we used to be the second oldest places in the United States, in 10 to 15 years we’re on track to be one of the youngest. We’re going to need to build our workforce and Sokol says Dine Arounds could be one piece of attracting and retaining that talent.
“There are other great places to live or stay, so maybe we need to do something a little bit extra as a city to say ‘Come here and stay,’” he says. “Here is a community-led initiative that is trying to make Pittsburgh present itself in the best possible way, and it could really change the way you view the city that’s now home.”
So the concept of the Dine Around was expanded, with the help of others including the publisher of NEXTpittsburgh, Tracy Certo, who helped to organize the new iteration. This version would be based on the home dinners done during One Young World, when all the attendees to the international conference were welcomed into homes of Pittsburghers for dinner.
Last year’s two citywide Dine Around events (also known as welcome dinners in some circles) welcomed more than 200 people to 20 separate dinners. The third Dine Around will take place on Saturday, October 25. Hosts, who pay their own costs, can structure dinner in any way they like, keeping in mind that the idea is to foster good conversation and an atmosphere that sets people of all different backgrounds at ease.
If that sounds daunting, Vibrant Pittsburgh’s Welcome Center and Outreach Assistant says not to worry.
“It’s just people coming together and sharing food,” she says. “It’s a dinner party where you might not know anyone.” In a post-event survey, 100% of the hosts said they would do it again and 100% of the guests said they would attend another.
Brianna and Nathan Ivey took the plunge into a blind dinner party during the first citywide event in April 2013, a month after they’d moved to Pittsburgh from Orlando, Florida. Brianna says their Dine Around experience made them excited to be in the city.
“People can’t tell you enough good about Pittsburgh. It was so fun to feel immediately a part of it.”
“You could see the pride the hosts took in their city and that kicked it off for us. We wanted to make sure we became invested, too.”
This year, all guests are invited to convene after dinner for a dessert reception sponsored by the Dignity and Respect Campaign of Greater Pittsburgh.