The tablecloth was fresh, the juice was chilled. Francina Richardson and her family were ready for company. But instead of waiting for the doorbell to ring, this Sonoma, Calif., grandmother was listening for the distinctive trill of a Skype phone call. And her guests were joining her as part of a pioneering new initiative called the Virtual Dinner Guest Project.
Right on time, a group of youth in Cairo took a "seat" at the breakfast table. Introductions were made on both sides of the computer screen, and then, a natural conversation began. The young Egyptians, most of them active in their country's political scene, were curious to know how the democratic process works in America. The questions were thought-provoking and the answers revealed the distinct cultural differences between the two countries.
Richardson, herself from an activist generation, found the conversation enlightening: "That was such a wonderful opportunity to sit with a group of young people from Egypt and not only read about their passion, but to hear and feel their passion. I think that is what we're going to see changes the world. It's human to human. Secondarily, it's governments and economics." She added that she'll be more inclined to follow the news coming out of Egypt now that she has faces to put on the revolution.
Joining Richardson at her California table were her daughter and son-in-law and their two kids: 13-year old Emma and 11-year old Creighton. While both later admitted that the conversation about revolutions and politics was a bit over their heads, they were both intrigued by the novelty of the idea. And for Creighton especially, the connection with the foreign country piqued his interest for international travel: "I want to see the world, not just stay in the U.S. I want to see what other cultures are like and experiment with their food, with their rules, with everything."
This connection was orchestrated by Eric Maddox, the founder of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, and the godson of Richardson. "The idea is that I'm connecting people around the world at their dinner tables, using video technology conferencing to promote free speech, citizen-to-citizen diplomacy and an alternative to the mainstream media. I see this as an opportunity that American citizens can get directly involved in a grassroots dialogue with people whose political futures, economic futures are as yet undetermined." While the project is in its nascent stages, he does encourage interested families to sign up through his Web site: www.virtualdinnerguest.com.
As for Richardson and her family, they're eager to connect again with another group in another country. Maybe a family next time, so the conversation can involve the children more. But for their first time "hosting," the experience created a breakfast that will not soon be forgotten.