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Lessons in Leadership: Finding Belonging at the Dinner Table

How might one go about preparing students for the immediate and future realities of climate change? At an institution like this, it makes perfect sense to hire world-class scholars to teach cutting-edge courses, invite leading practitioners to headline conferences, and build state-of-the-art buildings to facilitate dynamic discoveries and host coveted conversations. 

This past year at Yale’s Center for Business and Environment (CBEY), we flipped conventional wisdom on its head and turned our attention to the dinner table.

When CBEY founded the 2050 Fellows a decade ago, the center committed itself to supporting meetings of graduate students across Yale’s campus. These meetings encouraged students to imagine and prepare for the resilient societies and responsible economies required of us to maintain a healthy, stable environment upon which we live, move, and have our being. 

While using the frameworks of business and the environment to help guide conversations, the group’s discussion topics varied significantly, all of which aimed to address future challenges, not just react to current ones. This past year, conversations covered everything from the future of food sovereignty and designing new commons to disrupting traditional extraction models and deepening our sense of time. As our group met once a month over an extended lunch break, these meaningful topics were explored with curiosity and enthusiasm as we wondered, questioned, and considered anew. 

A Fresh Start

The fall semester of 2022 represented a new season for us all: this was the first semester Yale and many other schools returned to full-time, in-person instruction after the COVID-19 pandemic’s darkest days. Filled with veteran students who endured a shut-down campus along with new students fresh with curiosity, much of the campus, including the CBEY 2050 Fellows, now lacked institutional memory. Like much of the world, we took this opportunity to reassess the needs of the 2050 Fellows and reimagined a program that - if executed as intended - could prepare ourselves and our classmates to address the needs of today while preparing for the ever-shifting needs of the future.   

Our answer to this challenge? Dinner.

Breaking Bread Together

We expanded the traditional model of the 2050 Fellows to include several regularly scheduled Gatherings. This optional and delicious new element of the program provided funding to Fellows to host dinner parties across the city. Designed to be small yet intentional, these dinner parties had no agenda other than creating inviting spaces for people to be themselves, to find companionship over a glass of wine, and to delight in unstructured joy - a rarity at a place like this. Gatherings were developed not just to supplement the “real” leadership work that took place in monthly meetings, but rather to practice a different form of leadership: one built on love and kindness, one that prioritized empathy and compassion rather than ego and competition. One that fostered belonging.

In order to do the meaningful work this fellowship invited us into, we realized that we first had to be in relationship with one another. We first had to know one another in order to explore hard truths, make bold assertions, and create meaningful communities. It is hard to engage in conversation about the world’s great challenges and our role as members of this planetary community if we don’t first trust each other. In order to face the needs of our communities - from New Haven to Hong Kong - we realized that we must first know those we are working with. What better way to do that than over a home-cooked meal? 

Antidote to Loneliness 

While sharing a meal can be delightful, something deeper happens when we sit down together. It is as simple as being together, creating connection and pushing back on the academic trend of siloing and the cultural trend of isolation. For us leaders of the 2050 Fellows, the greatest lesson in leadership we could share with our colleagues was connection.  

Even though loneliness has risen acutely in the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic acted as a concentrated dose of the slow-motion shift in loneliness that our country has experienced in the last few decades. In fact, the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has been preaching the woes of loneliness and the gospel of connection well before the pandemic started in 2020. However, after a few years of intense isolation nestled on top of the decades-long crumbling of civic institutions, Murthy has now declared loneliness and isolation a health epidemic. Murthy isn’t alone in his crusade. Priya Parker has artfully proclaimed the necessity of creating intentional ways of gathering and how thoughtful connections can make a big difference. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton recently wrote about the need to rebuild our communities through connection. Perhaps what our Fellows were in need of were not new concepts to solve, but rather new building blocks for how to even go about problem-solving. Perhaps what our climate future is in need of are more leaders ready to build deeper relationships rather than larger space fleets. 

“I wish grad school was like this,” remarked one of the 2050 Fellows cheerfully as she departed from a gathering this past spring. Many others nodded in agreement and chimed in with their own versions of gratitude. Even though these students were surrounded by some of the world’s top scholars, finest libraries, and everything an Ivy League school could buy, it was in this deeply committed and diverse group of grad students that many of them felt like their dreams of Yale had been realized, it was only in and through the process of engaging in communal learning and self-discovery that the lofty academic and professional pursuits one undergoes in graduate school can even begin to make sense. In this eclectic and passionate group of visionaries preparing for some of the greatest leadership challenges of the future, many finally felt like they could be their vulnerable selves. That they could, and did, develop into the leaders the world is craving. A place there where they, too, belong.