Curiosity Club FAQ: An interview with KUOW producer Kristin Leong
Is KUOW's Curiosity Club thawing the Seattle Freeze? Club member Amanda Carter Gomes talks with Curiosity Club producer Kristin Leong and finds out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting curious.
Last January we launched Curiosity Club with one bold question in mind: Can great food and compelling storytelling transform a group of strangers into a community? After three cohorts, we’re seeing exciting evidence that the answer to that question is yes.
Here Curiosity Club member and founder of The Fold Amanda Carter Gomes shares how she came to be a part of our nerdy supper club and talks with KUOW's Curiosity Club producer Kristin Leong about the experiment.
Last year I was researching coworking options in the Seattle area. After spending years working from home, I was anxious to get out “among the people” and ready to leave my makeshift dining room table office. Scrolling through the site of Capitol Hill gem, The Cloud Room, a boutique-like coworking space complete with podcast studio and bar, I discovered an open call from KUOW for a new dinner club.
The goal: to make community out of strangers over the course of three meals. I was intrigued and excited. It felt like an opportunity to connect with individuals across the city whom I might not otherwise cross paths with. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was exactly what I needed in that moment. I applied and found out a few weeks before the new year that I had been accepted.
What transpired over those dinners was unexpected and enlightening. I made connections, changed a few previously cemented opinions and have since maintained relationships with many in the group.
After Cohort 1 was complete, I was eager to hear from our fearless leader, Kristin Leong, about the impetus for this “nerdy supper club”.
What was she and KUOW hoping to accomplish? Was there a reason for bringing this specific group together? She answered these questions and more when we sat down recently to discuss our Curiosity Club experiences.
ACG: How would you describe Curiosity Club?
KL: We like to say it’s like a bookless book club or a nerdy supper club. Ten diverse community members are intentionally curated and brought together for a dinner party or series of dinners.
A month before each dinner, members are assigned a group of multimedia KUOW stories as “homework.”
The dinners are festive but informal. I serve as the facilitator and the journalists who reported the homework stories participate too. The agenda includes time for one-on-one conversations and whole-group discussions.
Afterwards, participants (including the reporters) complete a survey and many club members write thoughtful and surprising reflections that we share at KUOW.org/curiosityclub.
ACG: Can you tell us about the three Curiosity Club cohorts so far?
KL: Our first cohort of Curiosity Club kicked off the new year with a series of three dinners across three months. Club member and poet laureate Shin Yu Pai wrote a beautiful and nuanced reflection about this first round that touches on everything from a powerful moment she shared with fellow club member Sharlese Metcalf to her perspective as an Asian woman on one of the stories we explored.
Our second Curiosity Club cohort gathered for a one-night pop-up dinner. Going into this pop-up our Community Engagement team was skeptical: Could a group of strangers really connect over one dinner together? Apparently, yes.
There was an urgency in the room that seemed to be fueled by the tight timeline as the conversation weaved in and out of complex topics such as identity, race and citizenship. Club member Ishea Brown captured this urgency exactly in her reflection that candidly dives into her experience of the night’s conversation as a black woman who thought she wasn’t living in a bubble.
Inspired by our pop-up, in June we brought together another group for Queeriosity Club--a Pride-themed dinner. All of the homework assignments were centered on LGBTQ themes such as Ann Dornfeld’s story on how a local transgender teacher came out to his students.
Club member Jeffrey Howard was the dinner’s lone cisgender, heterosexual, white male. In his thoughtful reflection on the impact of the gathering, he shared that the moments of community he experienced that night will affect him for years to come.
ACG: What was the impetus for this social experiment/dinner club?
KL: Two central experiences inspired the idea of Curiosity Club: My work as a Humanities teacher for seven years and my participation in a fantastic little lesbian book club.
As a middle school English and language arts teacher, the thing I loved most about my job was seeing the power of compelling storytelling in action. Over and over again, I witnessed classes of tween students truly become a community despite their differences in backgrounds, opinions and cultures. This happened through our discussions about the content that fueled our curriculum—books, poetry, podcasts, articles, their own storytelling.
My vision for Curiosity Club was rooted in the hope that we could recreate this magic with adults through KUOW stories: Community through content, connections where we might be surprised to find them.
Tweens come with their own challenges, but in some ways I thought this experiment might be even more challenging with adults. We've just had so much longer to become comfortable in our bubbles and set in our beliefs. Now that we've completed our first rounds of the Club, I am encouraged to see that us old folks are ready for this work too.
And then there’s my excellent book club. There's six of us. We've been meeting together every month for the past few years. Other than being queer women, we're all so different. Mariya is from Russia and Paula is from Brazil. Moffett and I were both single parents. Danielle is thinking about traveling the world with her partner soon. Jen is a motorcyle-riding, spin-class-loving engineer.
We work in different industries. We love and hate different books. But we have the best time together and have created really meaningful connections to each other through our conversations fueled by what we read together. We're like the original Curiosity Club.
ACG: In your mind, prior to receiving applications for Curiosity Club, what was your ideal group of Seattleites?
KL: From the start, we knew we wanted Curiosity Club to reflect the diversity of our Puget Sound region and to bring together people who have historically felt underrepresented in the mainstream media. We were transparent about this hope in our call for applicants. Our KUOW Community Engagement team actively reached out to many community members to personally encourage them to apply.
As a result, our applicant pool for our first cohort was not only robust with 88 applicants, it was diverse by many measures.
Like our first cohort, our Curiosity Club Pop-Up and Queeriosity Club crews were also curated with the aim of bringing together different perspectives, experiences and cultures. Is every identity represented in these three cohorts of Curiosity Club members? No. That would be quite a tall order.
As we think about what might be next for the experiment, we continue to brainstorm ideas for reaching folks early in the application process from communities that we don’t see included in the Club yet, or who should be represented in higher numbers to more proportionally reflect our region.
By focusing on our application process (and not just the selection process) we can better ensure that Curiosity Club is an authentic representation of our surrounding community. Having a great applicant pool means that the people who are invited to join us to participate are the most curious and most excited about the experiment and are never invited simply to check a box.
ACG: Did you have any expectations surrounding the dinners, and if so, how has the reality compared to your original vision for the series?
KL: I was excited and hopeful going into Curiosity Club. I strongly believe not just in the power of great storytelling in general, but in the quality and depth of work that KUOW is sharing in particular. I also strongly believe in the ability of people who have different backgrounds and beliefs to come together.
We're still in the beginning stages of this experiment, but so far, after three cohorts and five dinners, the Club does seem to be building communities out of groups of folks who might not have been sharing a meal together otherwise.
ACG: What have been a few of your favorite moments thus far?
KL: There have been so many! There were little moments of magic throughout all of the dinners. Here is just one example.
At our first Curiosity Club dinner, Mellina White Cusack shared her experience as a former Jehovah Witness as it related to how she experienced Isolde Raftery's story "When A 14-Year-Old Chooses To Die Because Of Religion, Can Anyone Stop Him?".
This story is about a boy who declined a blood transfusion that could have saved his life due to his beliefs as a Jehovah Witness. Isolde participated in this dinner as one of our journalist guests.
I remember being captivated by this story when it was first published in 2015, but it was a totally new experience to hear both Mellina’s perspective as an insider and Isolde’s insights as the story’s reporter.
The way that this four-year-old story was colorfully and powerfully brought back to life that night was a testament to the power of connecting journalists to the community members who are impacted by their work. It was also proof of how impactful it can be to hear from people whose lived experiences are at the core of the stories we’re reporting on.
And of course, it was also a nod to the quality of work our KUOW reporters are sharing with the world. I left the dinner feeling deeply grateful to be a part of KUOW and our Curiosity Club community.
You can find Isolde's story and read Mellina’s thoughtful reflection on her experience as part of our first round of Curiosity Club here: She’s a queer, conservative, ex-Jehovah’s Witness. When she comes to dinner, controversy sparks
ACG: Why is Curiosity Club important and relevant right now? And, how can someone replicate this experiment?
KL: Our world is so divided right now. Curiosity Club is one effort to push back against this current “us vs. them” rhetoric with authentic engagement and community building.
When people think of community, they think of sameness — here is the LGBTQ community, here is the Asian American community, etc. Our vision for community is instead rooted in common ground, not common identity markers.
For Curiosity Club, that common ground is powerful, authentic storytelling. The KUOW stories that serve as the Club’s homework each month are such great examples of the truly human work that KUOW is doing in addition to being a trusted source for current events.
We're not finished with this experiment yet, in fact, I hope this is just the beginning, but we have the sense that it's working and story-by-story we're creating a community out of a group of strangers who from the outside seem like an unlikely collection of friends.
And how to replicate Curiosity Club? Find people who are different than the ones you usually hang out with and ask them about something other than what they do for a living and then actually listen to what they have to say.
ACG: What’s next for the club?
KL: We are currently working on bringing together a cohort of students for a Curiosity Club Youth series. This experiment will be a collaboration with educators at the university and secondary levels. We are so excited to see this come to life!
We’re also brainstorming ways to continue to engage and support our Curiosity Club alumni community while planning for another Curiosity Club pop-up dinner. Applications will be open later in the year.
ACG: What’s the best way to follow Curiosity Club and know when applications open?
KL: There’s a few ways to stay in our loop.
Follow all of our nerdy adventures in curious community building and get a behind-the-scenes look into our dinners at KUOW.org/curiosityclub.
Sign up for our KUOW Conversations newsletter to stay up-to-date on all of our KUOW Community Engagement projects and be the first to know when Curiosity Club applications open.
ACG: Thanks, Kristin! We’re all excited to see what’s next.
KL: Thank YOU for being a part of our nerdy supper club!
Amanda Carter Gomes is a Midwestern native who has been living in Seattle since 2002. She spent much of her early career working in marketing, event management and photo shoot production. In 2013, Amanda was recruited to join the team of an online publication as managing editor and subsequently took over the site in 2015. In 2017 she created The Fold to fill a void in online publications focused on women beyond the millennial range. Amanda lives in West Seattle with her husband, two boys, and pup Clementine.
Kristin Leong is KUOW's Community Engagement Producer. She is an advocate for misfits and rescue dogs. She's still recovering from producing this 7 minute story about a bicultural rebel violinist. You can find her on Twitter @kristinleong.
Thank you to The Cloud Room, our KUOW Curiosity Club partner. The Cloud Room is a stylish co-working community and bar that’s enriched by the people who occupy it.