Open Table to Open Dialog: How Diversity Dinners Create Community Connection

ARTICLE | Apr 12, 2016

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.” --Gene Roddenberry, screenwriter, producer, futurist

The folklore of Thanksgiving has passed through generations, embedded into our very culture. While the holiday itself is condensed into an annual event, the concepts behind it transcends a singular day. At its most basic, pairing people and a meal is a great equalizer. To some extent, this is what is occurring across the Chicago area, as communities increasingly use the uniting power of food in hosting “diversity dinners.”  A diversity dinner is the belief that having dinner can build positive relationships and establish cross-cultural communication and acknowledge differences. They are an opportunity to celebrate a community’s diversity.  By providing an environment that encourages open conversation and listening, communities can increase the understanding between their residents, strengthen ties with neighbors, and stabilize a region.  As the value is realized, their popularity grows. Here are three stories highlighting the power of an open table:

Diversity Dinners Launch in Park Forest and Matteson

Story by Greg Stopka based on interview with Barbara Moore, retired and former Community Relations Director of Park Forest and Robin Kelly, 2nd Congressional District

In June of 1997, Tom Brokaw reported on the “white flight” in happening in Matteson, IL, a south suburb of Chicago. Brokaw raised the question why, when communities like Matteson become racially-mixed, do so many white residents migrate to more homogeneous suburbs? “Can’t we live together?”

After Brokaw’s broadcast, Governors State University approached Matteson and Park Forest about how we could improve relations in the south suburbs.  At that time, Robin Kelly worked for Matteson and Barbara Moore served for Park Forest.  To answer Brokaw’s question, they recommended adopting the Chicago Dinners concept that was growing in popularity in Chicago into the south suburbs. A diversity dinner is a meal where a diverse group of residents learn about those attendance and what they have in common. The goal of the dinners was to help build relationships between diverse groups not to only talk about race directly, but to create an environment to share stories, understand, trust, and respect differences. After every dinner, participants are surveyed to determine what they learned and whether they intend to connect with someone they met at the dinner.

The first dinner was held through Governors State University with just a small group, but after seeing the potential of the program, Moore and Kelly desired to hold a larger annual event where small dinner gatherings would occur throughout the south suburbs so that everyone could participate in the conversation. Kelly and Moore would mix people so they could engage with a new audience every time they participated.  A sample dinner was held and taped to serve as guide for potential hosts.  They began fundraising, gathering financial support from Park Forest, Flossmoor, Matteson, Olympia Field, Rich Township, and other community groups including the League of Women Voters, Governors State University, Healing Racism, and the National Coalition Building Institute, among others.

Today, the program has around 500 people in 50 homes across several south suburban communities and has even branched out into churches, schools, public libraries, and community groups to continue building capacity, especially with young people. Dinners occur every April with 2016 marking the 19th anniversary of the program. While the program has been a great success, one of the ongoing challenges they are facing is the increasing difficulty in keeping the numbers up as some people feel that they only have to attend one dinner to "understand" diversity. On the contrary, the message is one that has to be reinforced and experienced -- that building diverse relationships is a way of life not just an event.  Individuals don't just learn about each other, but also build pride and respect for all the differing communities in the region.  In addition to the work that continues in the south suburbs, Kelly also has started to hold diversity dinners in Congress to build the relationships between our law-makers, cultivating understanding and trust across the many layers that encompass "diversity."

And similar to a restaurant franchise, the concept has continued to spread, with each community adjusting the ingredients meet its own diet. 

Dinner & Dialogue in Oak Park helps open minds and improve understanding of divisive issues
by Cedric Melton, Community Relations Director at Oak Park, IL

When it comes to fostering an honest discussion of a difficult topic, nothing puts people at ease, opens minds and improves understanding like making it a conversation over a good meal.

That’s the approach the Village of Oak Park’s Community Relations Department took when it launched the Dinner & Dialogue program in the winter of 2011 as part of its ongoing efforts to re-energize Oak Park’s unswerving dedication to promoting racial diversity and respect for human differences.

Oak Park’s popular Dinner & Dialogue program was modeled after the Jane Adams Hull House Chicago Dinner Project. By bringing together a diverse group of community residents in a safe, controlled setting over a full dinner, participants can be coaxed into honestly discussing and debating issues that can divide people, while working toward replacing prejudices and fears with mutual cultural understanding.

Keeping with the tradition of Oak Park’s long history of fostering real inclusion, a unique thrust of the dinners is to intentionally pair residents of diverse ethnicities who have never met before. The goal is to have them engage in real dialogue on race and other pressing social issues in a safe environment with wide open discussion, but no judgements.

Prior to the start of the Dinner & Dialogue program, Oak Park had established a solid reputation as a diverse, inviting community.  But some of those grass roots activists who had helped make Oak Park the community it is today had begun to voice concerns that the importance of continuing to work on race relations had diminished. Some said the community appeared to have said mission accomplished and moved on.

In reply to this unsettling sentiment, the Community Relations Department partnered with the citizen volunteers on the Village’s Community Relations Commission to develop a new outreach program. Their mission? Reignite important conversations and challenge what some saw as declining interest in race relations and inclusion, two issues that remain among the most critical facing us today.

The question became how would a new public discussion forum work?  Large-scale dialogues are difficult to coordinate because many people are afraid of being embarrassed or seen as politically incorrect.  The commission concluded that the community’s race radar had become so ratcheted up that many Oak Parkers had become paralyzed by the fear of being called racist.

Dinner & Dialogue offered the answer. Small scale, intimate and non-judgmental. The dinners operate on the understanding and guarantee that participants won’t intentionally hurt or offend each other.  This guarantee promotes real dialogue and allows for an open exchange of ideas and thoughts.  Put simply, participants talk with each other and not at each other.

The beauty of this approach is its simplicity. Few residents ever have an opportunity for honest conversations about race and other difficult subjects even among their social and professional peers. But in a comfortable setting that uses trust, respect and intelligence, residents are better able to navigate difficult conversations and come away with a deeper understanding of different racial groups and their community experiences. 

Since the program’s debut, nearly 50 dinners have been held in private homes throughout the Village. Topics have covered a wide range of issues that are important not to the municipal government of Oak Park or community activists, but to residents who call the community home.  

This is the message the Oak Park’s Dinner & Dialogue program strives to share and address.  The program is based on the belief that if individual ethnicities approach each other with honesty trust and sincerity, the groundwork can be laid for a level of honest communication that can make a real difference in how races see and interact with each other.

More information on Oak Park’s Dinner & Dialogue program is posted at www.oak-park.us/community.

Evanston Table Talk
by Oscar Murillo, ICMA Fellow at Evanston, IL

The idea for the Evanston Table Talk dinners came about after having attended the Alliance for Innovation’s Ambassador Forum at the Village of Oak Park, IL in September 2015. It was during the forum that Oak Park’s Community Relations Director, Cedric Melton, provided the group with information on their Dinner & Dialogue program. Not only did he do a great job in “selling” the program’s value and success, but he provided attendees with what was essentially a how-to for municipalities to start similar programs. I liked the idea, though I somehow ended up misplacing the handouts and in time forgot about the program.

A few months later, while staffing a Human Relations Commission meeting, I began thinking about how to engage the Commission and renew their sense of purpose. I had recently taken over as staff liaison and noticed they had no active programs/projects and hadn’t made a quorum in their previous five attempts. In an apparent coincidence, I stumbled across the handouts a few days later while cleaning out a file drawer. Within a week I had reached out to Cedric and run the idea past the Commission. Both were very enthusiastic for us to proceed with the program. I then spoke with the City Manager and received approval for funding the program.

The planning process included several meetings with the Commission to determine the direction of the program, as well as potential discussion topics and outreach methods. Cedric provided a great deal of support and resources for us to adapt the program. The plan was to emulate Oak Park’s program while also incorporating key elements of the Commission’s vision, mission, and work plan. Once the direction was set, I began the process of promoting the dinners to prospective hosts and attendees. Apart from posting information and flyers on our website, social media and newsletters, I began emailing residents who had signed up to receive our various newsletters. Additionally, I reached out to local newspapers, Northwestern University, and community and religious leaders. Within a few weeks, we had over 100 residents signed up to host or attend a dinner.

Interested residents were asked to submit an informational form that was then exported onto a spreadsheet. The Commission reviewed the spreadsheet, filtering the various demographic categories in an effort to maximize the diversity of attendees. I then created an agenda, selected reading materials, and prepared discussion questions. Lastly, I selected a vendor to provide the dinner, making sure to account for meal preferences and food allergies.

The first dinner was held in the home of one of our alderman, followed by a second dinner in the home of one of our state representatives. The dinners have been well received by the community and attendees. Feedback from dinner discussions have been incorporated into Commission and City programming efforts. The dinners are contributing to improving relations among residents, allowing residents who would not otherwise meet under normal circumstances to share a dinner and discussion over topics of shared importance. It is our goal that these dinners will lead to attendees hosting subsequent spin-off dinners with other attendees.

Editors Note: As you can imagine, a perceived need for diversity dinners can be traced to polarization and trust is both a barrier and potential positive outcome from these events. The Alliance's 2015 BIG Ideas Conference looked at these issues in a candid, honest forum -- take a look at the resulting report from the event. 

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