The Boston-based organization The Jar is showing how art can foster new bonds between strangers. Since 2019, the group has brought together participants to connect with other people who may not look like them or think like them, share a meal together and discuss a meaningful work of art that’s part of the event — such as an illustration or a musical performance. The goal is to create a more vibrant and diverse cultural community through personal connections, and for Bostonians to understand each other's differences and learn from others perspectives. The Jar's founder Guy Ben-Aharon spoke with GBH's Arun Rath about the project. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So tell us a bit more about how you decided to start The Jar and how it works.
Guy Ben-Aharon: Sure. So the impetus for The Jar was two things. One was noticing how alarmingly homogenous cultural rooms tend to be and wanting to find a way out of that. The other was the fact that the arts do this incredible thing of creating a shared experience for people — and then we send them home. We're inviting people to experience something together. They all have something in common, and then we just let them go home. So The Jar was really started to answer both of those things.
It was over the course of 10 years that I was working and running a theater company that I was finding myself thinking, "Well, it seems the institution really can't solve the problem, but people can solve problems." And so we came up with this 21st-century model called the convener model, whereby people are invited to convene people who are like them, their usuals, and people who are not like them, their unusuals. So everybody is empowered to create the world they want to live in.
What that led to was three things. One, there is no usual or unusual in the room. There are certain cultural institutions where you think, "Well, the people would most likely be this type of person." But at The Jar, a middle-aged Asian American woman might be somebody's complete usual guests, and she might be somebody's unusual. Two, no one is alone. We know from the Surgeon General of the United States that one of the biggest problems we're facing as a country is a pandemic of loneliness, but at The Jar, every single person is connected to five other people and you know that everyone else in the room is also connected to five other people so there's this inherent communal experience. And the third is: everyone can convene! You can convene. I can convene. And this would be a way to create a more meaningful relationship with all of these people. That's really what we wanted to do. Why this thing was started is to help people create more authentic, meaningful relationships with people who are like them and not like them.
You might say, "This model can be used for gardening. Why art?" Art is really there as a shared experience. Art provides us a way to connect to our more truthful selves, more deeper selves and our heart-centered selves. So it allows for people to connect through the heart center, as opposed to through the brain or through other parts. I would say Boston is a pretty brainy city, so it's nice to have people connect to each other in a more heart-centered way.
Rath: Hearing you talk about it, it seems very similar to reading salons when they became popular going back 25 years ago, doing the same sort of thing with art. When you're talking about it, it sounds almost obvious.
Ben-Aharon: Truly! One of the things that I'm always shocked by is that this wasn't done before. But I think the real change and the real uniqueness is this convener model. It's the idea that you can't come alone and you can't expect the world to change on its own either. I mean, wouldn't I love to just arrive in a room that was vibrant and diverse. The reality: is society doesn't do that for us. Society actually works opposite of that. It dictates who we pray with, who we love and who we hang out with based on where we live and our socioeconomic situation. This convener model really works as a disruptive model to help us reach a hand. It enables us to say to someone who we might not normally have an excuse to ask out to go out with us.
“It’s been meaningful to hear people talk about hearing, taking in and really considering perspectives and lived experiences that are not their own.”
Rath: How do you get the diverse crowds? How do you draw in a diverse range of people?
Ben-Aharon: Basically, the model ensures it. Every person who comes to The Jar, you come either as a convener or a guest. Every convener gets a personalized phone call from one of our staff members to help them think through how to put a diverse group together. It's not for everyone, right? Some people might say, "I just want to come alone." Well, we don't do that. The Jar really invites you to bring your plus one, to bring two people who you normally experience culture with and to bring to two people you don't normally experience culture with. People who may not look like you, love like you, or pray like you. The model is what ensures the diversity in the room. It really works.
I remember the very first event in September of 2019, it was around a workshop stage production of Aya Ogawa's The Nosebleed, and 16 people from very different walks of life bought convener ticket and convened people who are like them and not like them. I remember standing in the room with our founding board members and we looked at this room and thought, "Wow, this is possible. This type of world is possible." Really, people are hungry for connection and they're just waiting for the excuse to invite people who they wouldn't normally get to invite.
Rath: In terms of what people take away from this experience, what have been the most surprising things that you've seen or experienced?
Ben-Aharon: I think some of the most surprising things I've experienced through this is the stories of people's friendships, friendships that were completely unexpected. There was one convener at The Jar who wasn't sure who she was going to invite, and she said, "I don't really have a diverse network of friends." We said, "That's OK." And we're talking through this with her and saying, "Is there anyone at your workplace who might not be like you? Is there anyone on your street who may be different from you in some way?" And she said, "Oh, yeah, my street is super diverse." She ended up convening her neighbors who were both ethnically and, from a sexual orientation point of view, different from her. And since then, she has been using The Jar to get to know her neighbors. She has said that just the experience of walking home was a friendlier experience in this way, because when she bumped into her neighbors, she actually has had a relationship with them thanks to The Jar.
So I think the thing that's been surprising has been to see people connect and to see them follow through outside of The Jar. Essentially, what we've seen has been people coming back and convening people who they met at The Jar who are not like them, and who are like them at times, and getting these photos from people, meeting up for coffee, meeting up for dinner, hosting their own "jars" in celebration of these new relationships that they've formed. It's been meaningful to hear people talk about hearing, taking in and really considering perspectives and lived experiences that are not their own.