Guest Post by Rachel Van’t Land
We’re not used to talking about race. In fact, we’re socialized to avoid talking about it. Maybe we’ll have a factual discussion about civil rights, black history, or the true origin of Thanksgiving. But when it comes to our personal experiences, beliefs, biases, and fears, we steer clear. Just like religion and politics, race isn’t dinner party talk.
That is unless you’re at one of Michaela Ayers’ dinner parties.
Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Race
I arrived in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood ridiculously early and found solace in a nearby bookstore where I could calm my nerves with literature until it was time for the Nourish Events dinner to begin.
I didn’t know any of the other guests, and the evening’s topic felt edgy: racial microaggressions. I was already afraid to participate in the conversation for fear of clumsily saying the wrong thing and committing, ironically, a microaggression.
I showed up to the venue at the last possible moment, hoping to slip into a seat unnoticed. Instead, Michaela greeted me warmly and led me past the long table elegantly decorated with flowers and place cards. After introducing me to some of the other guests, she stepped away quietly to tend to the final details with the caterers. A few minutes later, she gathered the ten of us around the table, and we began.
Michaela asked us to take a few deep breaths as we focused on our intention for being there. On the count of five, we all said one word to describe how we were feeling. After a chorus of mostly “nervous” and “excited,” people started to relax visibly. We went around the table and introduced ourselves, sharing something we’re passionate about.
Among the guests was Jonathan Kanter, a professor and researcher from University of Washington who studies racial microaggressions. I was relieved to hear that race isn’t always a comfortable topic for him, either, even though it’s at the core of his work.
Next, we took a few moments to articulate how we identify ourselves, writing down words we’d use to describe our gender, race, and ability. Michaela invited us to share which of those identities we think about the most, and which we think about the least. Which gives us the most privilege and which limits our access?
Over a four-course catered meal, the discussion began to flow, facilitated by a series of prompts and questions designed to create interaction. Some of the questions came hanging on a colorful floral arrangement. Others came in a jar. There was an elegance that invited us to slow down, savor the food, and come into meaningful connection.
One woman described how her race affects her role at a large corporation, opening some doors and closing others. The man next to me described a moment when his white friend pointed out he was the only black person in a restaurant, and how it felt strange that his friend had noticed while he had not.
I found the courage to admit that as a white girl raised in part of New Mexico where the population was predominantly Native and Hispanic, I grew up thinking I knew what it felt like to be a minority. And how silly I felt later in life when I realized what a privileged and ignorant assumption that was.
No one scoffed or gave me the side eye. We were all there to hear each other and to learn.
Finding Community Around the Dinner Table
Michaela created Nourish as a series of inclusive events where people come to engage with their community and leave feeling nourished. Her vision is to create gatherings where people can come and be curious about each other, in a city where a sense of community can be hard to find.
“A dinner party seemed like the perfect way to experience community and shared humanity with each other. In a big city, it’s easy to get lost. Sharing a meal together is a great place to start,” she says. “We all share important memories about food. It’s a beautiful and essential way to build connections.”
Curiosity is the Cure for Anxiety
As we build those connections, we find the courage to get outside of our comfort zones. Michaela believes that curiosity is the main ingredient in transforming anxiety into connection and leadership.
“We live in a culture where people are not socialized to talk about race, so there’s automatically going to be fear and anxiety. But things like race and gender are part of our identities. How can I create interactions and design moments where people can feel joyful and curious instead of anxious and fearful?”
Centering the conversation around curiosity creates inroads to listen and to share in ways that might otherwise remain out of reach.
Lead Where You Are
Leading these discussions brings its own challenges. Michaela has to push through her own fear as she creates a new environment where she’s asking people to share their experiences and trust that it’s going to be okay. There’s a tremendous vulnerability in disrupting social patterns. She has to embody all of the things she’s asking people to do.
She’s discovered that the greatest learning comes from discomfort. It feels like a risk, but those moments where we move beyond the fear of vulnerability hold the greatest potential for change.
When we’re willing to be open to new experiences and challenge old ideas, we create a culture of transformational leadership.
Anyone who’s willing to show up to one of the Nourish events—or to any vulnerable discussion—already embodies the principles necessary to lead their own discussions or step into leadership in their community:
- Being brave by being honest
- Being willing to be uncomfortable
- Being willing to show up
- Being willing to fail
Her goal is to give people the language to talk about race—to equip them to leave the dinner and go have this conversation with someone within their sphere of influence. Someone in their family who wouldn’t necessarily come to a dinner like this.
Community Starts at Home
When we’re willing to have discussions about our identities and the core of who we are, we build meaningful connections, challenge old ideas, and feel nourished by a sense of community.
There’s only one way to do that: practice. “It can be scary. These topics can be triggering. Something might land in a way you didn’t intend. But you’ll get better at these conversations with practice,” says Michaela. “We all have an opportunity to make an impact, but we have to start talking to each other first!”
To learn more, visit nourishevents.org.
Rachel Van’t Land is a freelance copywriter who helps organizations bring storytelling into their marketing. When she’s not at the keyboard, she’s meeting up with friends, coordinating her family schedule, or nerding out over marketing books. Her favorite things are desert hikes and free refills on coffee. You can find her at suncatchercopy.com.