A Zoom window opens to the title page: “Equitable Dinners: Setting the Table for Racial Equity.” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” plays on the speakers. As the clock approaches 5 p.m., facilitators' screens pop open and the number of participants logging on ticks rapidly upwards, topping out at 185. It’s like the virtual equivalent of a theater audience taking seats before the curtain goes up.
A product of Out of Hand Theater, coproduced with The King Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Equitable Dinners is a monthly hybrid of stage play, informational talk and moderated conversation on race and related topics including health, housing, education and voting rights. Equitable Dinners seek not to lecture to the viewers, but to get viewers talking to each other.
September’s dinner addressed race and voting rights. After welcoming remarks from Equitable Dinners program manager Adria Kitchens, the evening began “The Station,” a short, one-person play by Paris Crayton III. Dionna D. Davis starred as a woman whose local voting booth was in the same police station where her father died. Even through the computer screen, Davis' intensity felt raw and intimate as she discussed a case of voter intimidation.
“The Station” was followed by Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights advocacy group Color for Change, whose presentation resembled a TED Talk on voter suppression, combining devastating details with calls to action and hope.
During the presentations, organizers divided viewers into groups of seven to 10 diverse participants and directed them to Zoom breakout rooms with a facilitator to moderate discussion. Viewers were prompted to “stay in the conversation even when our feelings may seem big and uncomfortable” and “to engage each other with kindness and (be) considerate when we disagree.”
In one discussion group, a young white mother talked about the difficulties of voting in Georgia compared to Colorado; a self-described “octogenarian African-American” reflected on becoming eligible to vote in the Jim Crow South; a Kenyan immigrant described being a U.S. resident for more than a decade and still unable to vote.
Equitable Dinners evolved out of Decatur Dinners, an initiative the theater company launched in September 2019. Held in individual homes, each event began with a short, topical, one-person play and then the guests would discuss related social issues over pot-luck dishes. The series was so successful, the organizers planned a more robust series in 2020.
“Then the coronavirus hit and the world shut down,” says Out of Hand artistic director Ariel Fristoe.
Kitchens led the transition to online. She says the combination of impassioned art and informational context is designed to encourage viewers to engage with the topic. “We know that information does not change people’s behavior, but stories do and experiences do,” Kitchens says.
Since it launched in April, Equitable Dinners has attracted upwards of 1,500 people. Because the events are virtual, participants are not just local. “We’ve had people from 90 cities and towns just in Georgia, as well as more than 40 states and eight foreign countries. We’ll wonder, who is doing this from Spain?” Fristoe says.
“Because Equitable Dinners are online, we can have big-name guest speakers,” she say. “Our first topic was on race equity and health, and our guest was Dr. Camara Jones, who was in the news addressing the effects of racism and health during the coronavirus.”
Ann-Carol Pence, co-founder and associate producer of Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, has attended most of the Equitable Dinners.
“When Aurora Theatre shut down in March, I felt such a lack of purpose for how to process what we were going through as a city and state, much less process the amount of social injustice that our community has suffered,” Pence says.
The presentations and discussions are eye-opening, she says.
“As an older white person who grew up in Virginia, I’m having to unlearn all of American history in a way that makes space for other cultures,” Pence says. “I think about how these things look from a non-white lens, and ask, ‘How can I help?’”
The discussions are most meaningful when one guest recognizes another guest’s experience that might be radically different, Kitchens says. “I’ve encountered that when I shared my son’s experience dealing with the juvenile justice system of DeKalb County,” Kitchens says.
Kitchens explains that her 14-year-old son was accused of attacking a classmate, leading to a 10-month legal ordeal for the family. The plaintiff retracted her statement on the stand. But before the judge dismissed the case, she told Kitchens’ son she wanted to send him to jail because she didn’t like how his hair was cut.
Kitchens recalls the shocked response her story received at the Equitable Dinner. “I could see looks of horror on their faces. A lot of them said they didn’t know this was happening in their backyard,” she says.
Fristoe regularly serves as a facilitator, which requires respecting other people’s views while at times correcting misconceptions. “Last month’s dinner had this middle-aged white man in his 50s who felt a little uncomfortable and said, ‘I’ve never attempted to have a conversation about race before, especially with people from other races.’”
When this guest repeatedly asserted that black children grow up without fathers, Fristoe politely encouraged him to learn the truth behind the stereotype. “This is dialogue, not debate, but if people say facts that are definitely not true, we don’t want to let that stand,” she says. “By the end, he was saying, ‘I learned a lot. I didn’t know how Black people and people of color felt.’”
There’s no substitute for people breaking bread together, admits Fristoe, but Equitable Dinners has proven to be far more successful than she imagined. Initially a six-month series, Equitable Dinners has been extended through June 2021, and there are plans to hold in-person dinners next fall.
There is also an Equitable Dinners at Work series for organizations and businesses who are “committed to understanding more about having a racial equity lens,” says Kitchens. A three-part event was recently presented for the Corporate Volunteer Council (CVC) of Atlanta.
“Our goals are to provide a safe space for CVC members to discuss inclusion in the field of corporate responsibility as well as to better understand the corporate role in equity,” says CVC executive director Cheryl Kortemeier. “We held our first dinner on Tuesday and it was powerful and engaging.”
To encourage interactivity during Equitable Dinners, organizers prompt viewers to wave from the gallery at the beginning of the session and use the comments field for applause, emojis or other signs of appreciation.
At the end, participants reconvene as a whole and Kitchens encourages them to turn off the mute button to say goodbye. The ensuing cacophony of farewells and thanks sounds almost like an ovation.
VIRTUAL EVENT PREVIEW
Equitable Dinners: Setting the Table for Racial Equity. Presented by Out of Hand Theater. 5-7 p.m., third Sunday of the month. Free. Oct. 18 topic is race equity and democracy. www.equitabledinners.com
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