Virtual Connections

May 13, 2020 | By Eve Tolpa

Eric Maddox (SF01) pictured in Baalbek, Lebanon.

St. John’s alumni frequently find that the aptitudes they honed in college—critical thinking, thoughtful questioning, clear self-expression, careful listening—are variously applicable in their lives and work. But it’s less often that they regularly employ all of them at once.

Eric Maddox (SF01) falls into the latter category, and that skill set is the cornerstone of his two media initiatives: the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, which facilitates discussion between groups of people in different countries, and Latitude Adjustment, a global affairs podcast focusing on underrepresented populations.

Both projects’ roots can be traced not only to Maddox’s liberal arts education but also to the political environment into which he graduated. He finished his degree at St. John’s just a few months before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which he calls “a pretty pivotal moment for my generation.”

The event reverberated throughout Maddox’s academic and professional life, inspiring him to travel to Egypt in 2002, where he studied Arabic at a language institute in Cairo. During the same trip, he and a classmate also backpacked across Lebanon. It was his exposure to these two countries that began to unwind many of his preconceptions about the Middle East; that journey, “in concert with my experience at St. John’s,” Maddox says, was transformative.

Of St. John’s, he says, “It didn’t indoctrinate me with a particular ideology [but] helped me to resist in succumbing to them so easily.” Immediately after 9/11, he adds, “there were a lot of narratives that were kind of being pumped down our throats as Americans—these simplistic explanations like ‘they hate freedom’ and ‘it’s us versus the terrorists.’ I think St. John’s helped me to question the tidy, prefabricated explanations we were being given.”

Rather than automatically accept a media-generated version of events in the Middle East, Maddox started talking to people there, questioning their perspectives and his own. Later, back home in the U.S., his inquisitive impulse led him to enroll in a master’s program in international conflict transformation. Part of his graduate field research involved living in a refugee camp in the West Bank, where he collected oral histories of the 1948 War from Palestinians and Israelis.

“I was in a place where there were strong ideological camps,” Maddox says. “There’s a lot at stake if you pick sides, and there’s a lot at stake if you don’t. My St. John’s experience helped me to suspend judgment.”

It was with a similarly open mindset that he started the Virtual Dinner Guest Project in 2011. His first event facilitated a Skype conversation between groups on either side of the U.S. southern border: one in New Mexico and one in Ciudad Juarez.

Maddox outlined the project’s larger goals in an article he wrote for the Santa Fe Reporter. Not surprisingly for a Johnnie, he posed them as questions: “If emerging technologies could be utilized to foment popular revolution, what potential might they have for securing global peace? If peace is not simply the absence of armed conflict, but the presence of justice, how might the global community utilize these technologies to connect and empower itself?”

When Maddox returned to the Middle East at the end of that same year, he brought with him the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, which evolved to include short vox pop interviews: multiple passers-by responded to a single question, and their responses were edited together to create a thematic mini-film.

While the Virtual Dinner Guest process applies many aspects of the St. John’s seminar table to international relations, there are also some differences. Unlike in a seminar, Maddox says, “We’re not trying to get to the bottom of something. This is about trying to draw out people’s subjective experience of their reality.” But similar to a seminar, it is often the simplest questions that elicit the richest answers. Maddox cites one particularly fruitful example: “What’s the one thing you want the world to know about Lebanon?”

Virtual Dinner Guest has enabled conversations between people in 20 countries across 5 continents, with the most recent event taking place in 2017. Since then, Maddox, who currently lives in Spain, has been investing more time into his podcast, Latitude Adjustment, which requires much less logistical and financial management. “It’s a lot of work to get [Virtual Dinner Guest events] funded,” he says. “The podcast is a natural outgrowth of the project. I can do it every week with not much of a budget.” (That being said, Maddox and his board at Open Roads Media, the Dutch nonprofit he founded to administer the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, plan to continue their programming with institutions in the U.S. and across the world.)

In an April 2020 episode of Latitude Adjustment, he interviewed the creator of a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, founded on solidarity, empowerment, and community participation. The subject is right in line with the podcast’s stated mission: “to inspire curiosity about misunderstood places, communities, and perspectives, in order to nurture human connections, greater empathy, and to create a more just world.”

It’s no accident that curiosity is framed as a catalyst for understanding and justice; it’s a quality instilled in Maddox by St. John’s, and one of his most valued. “A lot of suffering in the world is due to a lack of curiosity,” he says—not, he clarifies, on the part of those who are themselves suffering, but “for those of us of who have the luxury of being curious.”

“It should be the driving force in our lives, not just as an exercise but as a moral imperative.”