Back in December, Clare Schexnyder squeezed 30 people into her Decatur living room to watch “Shaking the Wind,” a one-woman play about the life of Atlanta actress Minka Wiltz.
The play, which traced Wiltz’s coming of age as a street preacher’s kid growing up black in 1980s Atlanta, lasted all of 90 minutes, drawing from the audience a mix of laughter and tears, but when it ended, a funny thing happened.
Those 30 people, a mixture of ethnicities and races and genders and ages, stuck around for hours talking.
Schexnyder, a small-business owner and the mother of a school-age son, happened to mention the disproportionate number of African American kids in the city of Decatur school district who are disciplined more often than their white counterparts, who are expelled more and who don’t perform as well academically.
The inequities she saw weighed heavily on her. She knew that the school board and the superintendent were working to change that and that the school district had hired an equity director, but she also realized change is slow.
“I said I wish we could do something like this to get the community talking about this problem,” Schexnyder recalled recently. “We need to jump-start a conversation.”
Ariel Fristoe, founder and artistic director of Out of Hand Theater, and Wiltz liked the idea. So did Dietra Hawkins, a clinical psychologist who was also there that night and who has spent much of the past decade organizing dinners in communities to talk about hard issues like race and mass incarceration and immigration.
Well, we all know what can happen when mothers put their heads together. Yep, great things.
It was well past 1 a.m. when, after sharing their own stories, they finally headed home.
But first, they agreed to meet in January.
The new year had hardly begun when the women sat down to talk about what they could do to jump-start a conversation about race. Instead of debating the issue, which is what normally happens, they wanted to facilitate a dialogue.
Hawkins, a relatively recent transplant to Atlanta and founder of One Small Change, had been hosting community “Dinners With Friends” dinners to get people talking about everything from equity to discrimination and income inequality.
The women agreed to host the Decatur Dinners, 100 of them to be held simultaneously Aug. 25 across Decatur to talk about race and equity. To learn more and sign up, log onto decaturdinners.com, but be quick. The tables are almost completely full.
“A dinner party provides a unique opportunity for people to share their personal stories over a meal … a place where guests aren’t being talked at, but actually talk with each other,” Hawkins said.
Each dinner will open with an original 15-minute live performance created by Wiltz especially for the Decatur Dinners.
There’s nothing like a shared story to build empathy and spark conversations. It had worked with “Shaking the Wind.” Maybe it could happen again.
Every dinner will have a host, an actor, and a designated facilitator to help create a safe space to be honest.
Hosts can invite up to 12 guests, including others from the city who will be placed at their table by the organizers to ensure diverse perspectives at each dinner.
“There is power in having someone sitting across from you sharing their personal stories with racism, discrimination, feeling like the other and ideas to create change,” Schexnyder said.
It would be the first in the nation on this scale and, if things go as planned, a model for the rest of the country.
“The reason we are hopeful about this is that we have so much involvement from all the partners in this city,” Schexnyder said.
The dinners are backed by some big names, including the Better Together Advisory Board, City Schools of Decatur, the Decatur Housing Authority, the Decatur Education Foundation, churches and neighborhood associations.
“We are going to have so many voices at the table that can actually help create change,” Schexnyder said. “If it’s voting in new members of the school board and commission, passing policy. Those are the changes we want to see everybody get on the same page.”
But let’s be clear. These dinners aren’t about friends and neighbors who agree on everything getting together around bowls of salad and various and sundry breads. Schexnyder, Hawkins and Fristoe are being deliberate about having a diverse mix at every table so that guests aren’t having the same conversation they always have.
They want real results.
Hawkins recalled, for instance, a discussion about the pipeline to prison in our schools, in which black parents recalled instructing their kids on what to do when stopped by police. One of the white parents decided he’d develop a script for his kids on how to be an ally for black kids caught in that type of situation.
“Talking about race is hard and it’s uncomfortable, but what I’ve come to realize is the more you do it, the easier it gets,” Fristoe said. “These dinners are a fun, easy way to have those difficult conversations. There’s also great food and often wine and you meet nine new friends from different backgrounds and experiences.”
And hopefully ideas about how to make the world a better place for all of us.
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