In 2017, a USA Today article named Erie, Pennsylvania, the worst place in the country for African Americans to live, citing high unemployment among the city’s Black population, and a 57% lower median income compared to the city’s white households.

Dr. Michael Fisher and Rev. Jennifer Bailey at an early People's Supper event at Vanderbilt University in 2017.

Folks from Erie Insurance, the city’s lone Fortune 500 company, reached out to our team at The People’s Supper to see if we could help. They wanted to convene a dialogue series to understand the truths behind that ranking, brainstorm solutions, “and begin to build trust.”

At first, we were skeptical. Was this a search for a feel-good quick fix, motivated by a perceived optics problem? Were they looking for a way to appease the Black community, with an empty gesture and more conversation, absent action?

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Our skepticism was hardly limited to the motivations of one company in one city. At the time, we were asking the same questions of ourselves. In our own mission to help people bridge racial, religious, and political divides, we believed in the power of dialogue and story-sharing. But we had come to the uncomfortable realization that changing attitudes only goes so far when there are inequitable systems and policies in place. Over the next two and a half years, our experience with Erie would further highlight the limits of our initial approach—and suggest a better strategy for lasting change.

The limits of bridging differences

We launched The People’s Supper within days of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We knew enough about how human brains work to know that we weren’t going to argue our way through the divides in our country. One thing that actually can change minds? When we have a positive encounter with someone from a different group that runs counter to our assumptions.

We wanted a way to help people break free of their bubbles, both in-person and online, and understand the stories beneath whatever stereotypes they held of immigrants or Muslim Americans, liberals or conservatives. So we put our energy into hosting suppers, bringing people together across lines of racial, religious, generational, and political difference for a chance to talk about the experiences that had shaped who they are.

Like so many other efforts to “bridge divides,” we anchored our work in social contact theory: Originally developed in the 1950s, the theory suggests that interpersonal contact, under the right conditions, reduces prejudice and bias among conflicting groups.

By many measures, it worked. We enlisted hundreds of hosts across the country, and helped connect them to strangers nearby looking for a seat at their table. We powered more than 100 suppers in our first 100 days, and more than 1,000 in our first year. The Washington Post ran an article on the front page of the Style section, with the headline, “What happens when two immigrants, five liberals, and a Trump voter sit down to dinner.” CBS Morning sent a film crew. We were profiled by the Obama Foundation, and hosted a People’s Supper as part of their inaugural Summit. Prince Harry and Barack and Michelle Obama each took a seat.

But we were also beginning to understand the limits of our model.

In that first year, we heard from a lot of white progressive women who wanted the optics in their lives to match the values they professed to hold. A colleague coined a term: White Women Who Like to Hike (WWWLTH). They lived in urban areas. They skewed upper-middle class. (Full transparency: I’m a white woman who lives in Los Angeles. I graduated college debt-free and am a member of a hike club.)

They wanted to sit down with a token person of color, a token Muslim, and a token immigrant (preferably undocumented), and patiently nod their heads at stories of oppression, as proof that they were as compassionate and woke as they thought they were. They wanted to sit down with a token Trump supporter, and confirm that they were morally and intellectually superior. And then they wanted to take a selfie for Instagram, and be done.

At the time that Erie reached out, we were starting to realize: Change doesn’t work like that.

From story sharing to generating solutions

I remember the exact moment my naiveté about this process was shattered, when I heard Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika say this on the Seeing White podcast: 

I think it’s easier for people to think about it like it was all just a matter of attitudes and not understanding, and like maybe people just didn’t sit down and eat enough dinners together or something like that. Because when you think of it that way, you can make it about individuals who didn’t understand. Where, when you understand the way that exploitation was sort of baked into the project of Western imperialism and the development of the United States, then you have to go and question much more fundamental structures and much more fundamental ideas about our culture.

Like any upstanding liberal, I’d bandied around the term “structural racism” for years. But I’d always believed that bigotry breeds policies, not the reverse—that it was indeed “a matter of attitudes.” I’d helped start The People’s Supper out of that very same belief, hoping that purposeful conversations could eventually lead to larger societal changes.

Listening to that segment confirmed what we were already learning: The suppers were meaningful and heartwarming, but most were, at best, a feel-good experience. At worst, they did harm, allowing white liberals like me to pat themselves on the back, and to consider our work complete.

We were at a crossroads: We recognized that fixing structural problems—like the ones that were driving racial inequity in Erie—would depend on our capacity to work together, which in turn would depend on deepening trust. But we also knew that hearing each other’s stories is not enough. White supremacy can’t be undone over a couple of dinners. You cannot ask someone who’s been subject to marginalization to come to the table, if there is no promise that things will change.

Hosting suppers in Erie

We got to work with the people in Erie—first the folks at Erie Insurance, soon followed by members of the Mayor’s team. My cofounder, Jen Bailey, who leads Faith Matters Network, and K Scarry, our community director, designed a six-month supper series, bringing together a mix of racially and ethnically diverse civic leaders—80 in all—for a total of seven gatherings, including a combination of “affinity suppers” among folks who shared a common identity and “bridging suppers” across racial difference.

Holding distinct spaces for people of different racial or ethnic groups—also known as caucuses—is a popular tool in racial equity work. Separating groups opens the doorway to more honest conversation, while reducing the risk of harm: People of color can openly share how race has impacted their experience, without having to explain themselves or fearing they’ll be perceived as “too much.” For white people, processing whiteness and its impact on their lives—especially for the first time—can be messy; it’s a mess people of color are better spared, lest they be expected to educate or forgive.

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During the first night of affinity table conversations, people of color had the chance to share stories with one another of their first experience of racial injustice or discrimination. They described, in the words of civil rights leader Ruby Sales, “where it hurts,” and reflected on what sustains them. White folks talked with each other about the moment they first realized they were white, and about issues related to race they didn’t understand but felt uncomfortable bringing up.

Together, participants talked about people and organizations that were bringing them hope, and what they hoped their grandchildren would say about the legacy they left behind. They talked about moments when they’d been made to feel unwelcome, and moments when they were made to feel the opposite—when they felt fully seen and heard, and that they fully belonged—and how we might create more of the latter in Erie.

At the end of the series, participants were invited to reflect on the stories they heard, considering both the realities of Erie today and where they hoped it could be in the future, and to come up with action steps to make Erie more equitable.

In June 2019, over 260 people gathered in the city’s Convention Center for the final “People’s Summit.” Each team of participants had the chance to pitch their idea. We watched dozens of Erie residents stand up and offer commitments, sharing publicly how they could be helpful to one another, as they worked collectively to combat racism and systems of oppression in the city.

More than 260 attendees gathered in June 2019 for the final "People's Summit," the eighth supper in a six-month series in Erie.

That night, the Mayor’s team announced the launch of the city’s new Better Together Council, comprised of participants from the series, which would be tasked with putting those ideas into practice. The Council divided into volunteer-led teams, each overseeing one of the projects developed through the series. 

And with that, we high-fived and figured our job was done.

We kept in touch periodically. The Council began meeting that fall. There were promising signs: The teams were meeting regularly, and one group charged with developing a curriculum for high school students got straight to work training students as facilitators. Predictably, efforts stalled at the outset of the pandemic, and it was clear the Mayor’s team needed help. We began checking in every week, offering a sounding board and encouragement and occasional pointers. 

Then George Floyd was killed.

From big ideas to sweating the small stuff

In Erie, one of the Black Lives Matter protests turned violent, and eleven downtown businesses were damaged. During the protest, a police officer kicked a sitting protester. The incident was caught on film, and went viral. When the Mayor was asked about it, he promised to investigate and prosecute—citing the violence of the protestors, as well as that of the police officers involved.

Three members of Erie’s LGBTQ Council resigned, two of them citing The People’s Supper as an example of a promise made and not kept: another mile-marker in a long history of expectations left repeatedly unfulfilled. After a weeks-long outcry and without contacting the Council, the Mayor announced that the officer would receive a three-day suspension, and would then be given desk duty until he could complete a sensitivity training. That same day, another police officer sent an email to the Mayor and local members of the press that was littered with racist and derogatory language, and was promptly fired.

The Mayor’s team called us: They needed help.

And that’s when we realized this had to be part of our job, too.

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It wasn’t enough to host suppers where folks could share stories and build empathy. And neither was it enough to acknowledge inequities, or even to generate promising solutions—and in the process, raise expectations that things might change—only to let those ideas languish. The Mayor’s team needed someone to sweat the small stuff: to organize meetings, to take notes, to keep track of deliverables, to follow up with those who weren’t in the room, and to keep people abreast of what everyone else was doing.

The problem is all the banal things that get in the way: crossed communication wires, and a lack of follow-through, born not of uninterest but of distraction, as new challenges quickly subsume old ones, diverting attention from one fire to the next. Factions form and people point fingers. Suddenly those who are playing on the same team lose trust in one another, and the process as a whole.

Our role was simple: to be a sounding board, and a listener, to remind everyone of the commitments they’d made to one another, to reduce the heat when tensions grew, to ensure that every voice was heard, and that complaints about the process were quickly addressed. It was to do the mostly thankless tasks that keep things running smoothly.
 We helped the team develop a clear leadership structure, and a regular cadence of meetings and reporting processes. We worked patiently with each team as they broke down large projects into bite-sized components.

Eventually, what began with people sitting around a table sharing stories culminated in projects like Erie’s new workforce development initiative, which will provide capital funding for minority-owned businesses and grants to help businesses provide new job training. In the fall, the city launched a new language access plan and policy, and cultural competency trainings for the fire department, police department, and all public works employees. The Council secured buy-in from a number of local colleges and universities, sports teams, and businesses to support Erie Promise, a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund to ensure all Erie students have access to higher education.

We’d begun The People’s Supper out of a desire to complicate the narratives we carry about ourselves and each other—only to find ourselves seeking out a simple, one-and-done fix, relishing the praise and press and the moments on the mountaintop when we could high-five and feel accomplished.

The alternative—taking the time to deeply listen to one another’s stories’ even as we recognize that story-sharing alone is not enough; learning to sit with complexity without being paralyzed by it, and carving out the space to not only conceive of big ideas, but to persist through all the cumbersome steps required to put them into practice—is far less inviting.

But if we’re to heal America’s racial divides, we cannot settle for empty calls for unity, or feel-good moments of bridge-building alone. We have to address the inequities that divide us in the first place. That means building the trust needed to overcome the inevitable challenges, large and small, that imperil even the best-laid plans.

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