Your place at the table

“I have a dream that one day … the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.

If we are lucky, we all can retrieve a memory of sitting at the supper table on Sunday in anticipation of a hot delicious meal. With napkins in our laps and forks at the ready, we would be fed a healthy helping of our favorite something, and over that plate of heartwarming food, we would also share more than the aromas revealed — stories were passed along the table, news and current events, ideas, hopes and dreams and the wisdom from one generation to the next. Miraculously, without a hint, we were all being fed more than was on the menu. The stories shared at the table made us family. They schooled us on how to build relationships and connect with others. The sharing of our experiences became blueprints for ideas and visions for our future, prompting us to action. And incredibly, the stories we shared became the foundation of the things we hold to be most true, whether they were actually true or not.

Coming to the Table in Richmond, Virginia (CTTT-RVA) is a local nonprofit that invites people to engage in the sharing of stories at the table where food and facilitation become the perfect ingredients for spawning new friendships across the racial divide. We invite you to meet the ever-growing CTTT-RVA family and join us as we deal with our country’s oldest problem: the legacy of enslavement and the racism it has spawned. We are excited about our work: taking disparate stories and developing a shared narrative leading to healing.

Here in Richmond, Virginia, we at CTTT-RVA are working hard to repair damage done by racial wounds of the past and present. Last year, we offered over 50 events and gatherings designed to share history with openness and honesty, to connect individuals of different backgrounds, to create a space for healing and to provide opportunities to take action to change our world. Through a method called circle process, facilitated conversation and intentional listening, we are building strong communities that bridge the racial divide in Richmond and, as a result, create lasting and impactful change.

Third Tuesday dinner gatherings at CTTT-RVA encourage courageous, clumsy and honest conversation.

Coming to the table

At the table, people meld together, sometimes sitting down with their differences yet getting up –
rising up – with new learning and perspectives about people. It was such a meeting at an awards ceremony in 2009 that brought the two founders together. Martha Rollins, a relative of Robert E. Lee, and myself, a proud child of the civil rights movement, often tell the story of our friendship. We met at a dinner and shared a brief conversation on the tragic occurrence of mass incarceration in the black community. Slowly, this chance meeting developed intentionally over many years from casual to connected to committed. At the root was a willingness to have honest conversations —
the hallmark of CTTT. Now 10 years later, our relationship is stronger than ever before as we continue to teach others how to facilitate the courageous, clumsy and often uncomfortable conversation on race.

We’re now joined by others who also want to create a safe space for constructive dialogue and implement restorative language and peace-building principles. Inspired by the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, CTTT-RVA explores the challenges of reaching across racial, political and societal lines at the dinner table — breaking down barriers and building bridges. CTTT-RVA is the local chapter of the national Coming to the Table organization founded in 2006 on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. In 2019, CTTT-RVA was created as a nonprofit corporation in Virginia. Since then, our table has continued to grow and inspire others all over the state to start their own chapters and spread the mission of racial healing. Now with 42 local affiliate groups across the United States, CTTT-RVA is the largest, engaging over 1,200 people online and approximately 300 city residents in facilitated conversations on race each month.

CTTT-RVA specializes in creating a safe and welcoming space to engage in the conversation on race and provides tips on how to engage in these conversations at home and in the workplace. Like the family dining table, our table rests on four legs: uncovering history, making connections, worshipping together toward healing and taking action. Each leg provides stability in our mission of racial healing. CTTT-RVA is dedicated to promoting racial equality and social justice, and teaching others how to do the same.

 

CTTT-RVA hosted a pilgrimage to First Landing, the site of the first landing of settlers to Virginia.

Engaging around the table

CTTT-RVA offers many ways to enter the conversation on race. Before the pandemic, our primary activities included regular dinner gatherings. Our third Tuesday dinner gatherings each month had consistently been attended by 60 to 70 folks eager to build and nurture relationships across and within racial lines, share facilitated conversation on topics related to our organizational mission and work to repair what is broken in our institutions, systems and our gathering places in everyday life. Our second Wednesday dinner gatherings – a collaboration with another local organization, The Joyful Feast – typically welcomed 12 to 25 participants each month who were equally enthusiastic about having these courageous, clumsy and often uncomfortable conversations on race. Even though we come together in goodwill, sharing deep-rooted beliefs and implicit biases can be tough. However, sharing over a good potluck dinner makes it easier! Thanks to our dedicated food team, even the sharing of family favorites opens the door to understanding and a willingness to learn.

Now, during this time of social distancing, we have converted our in-person gatherings to a virtual format, which enables us to engage even more people online and offer speakers on various topics facing our communities today. Here’s a glimpse at how we’re doing this:

Movie circle: This is for those who prefer the silver screen. Participants watch a relevant film, meet virtually following the movie and frankly discuss its message, often with trained facilitators. In January and February, CTTT-RVA hosted two showings of “Just Mercy” for about 160 participants.

Book circle: This group meets monthly for lively conversations on books addressing racial justice and healing. In January, they met to discuss Joy Degruy’s book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”

Reparations circle: This new and timely circle seeks to achieve positive, measurable, lasting effects on peoples’ lives by advancing the conversation regarding reparations – repairing what is broken – and creating conditions in which that conversation can become actionable.

Facilitators circle: We could not do the work of racial healing without dedicated facilitators, trained to guide us through difficult conversations at the table. The CTTT-RVA facilitators circle helps strangers from different backgrounds enter into meaningful, transformative conversations. They encourage folks to leave in a more conscious and open place than when they arrived at our gathering (virtually or in-person). There are two-hour trainings each month and two retreats per year so that we can provide at least one trained facilitator per table at dinner gatherings, as well as facilitators for book circle meetings, movie circle gatherings and special events.

Coming to the Table-RVA has cultivated partnerships with local museums to bring powerful and enlightening presentations to the stage, hosting the National Day of Racial Healing for two consecutive years for the Virginia Museum on History and Culture as well as co-sponsoring a citywide discussion on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “The Water Dancer.”

Healing at the table

At the heart of all the dialogue, dinners, virtual meetings, pilgrimages, tours and presentations, we come to the table for one thing: to heal ourselves and to be a healing presence in the pursuit of social justice. Our conversations on race discrimination, racial inequity, racism in schools and housing, employment, economics, public health, police brutality and all other areas of social concern empower those who come to the table to be change-makers in the world. We realize we have many systems that are cracked, and people are slipping through those cracks. We are broken at our foundation. Now, as a nation in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, we have discovered that we need to rediscover the core values that CTTT upholds: inclusion, respect and tolerance, honesty, truthfulness and transparency, justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, love, peace and nonviolence, healing, transformation and liberation. These values create a circle of protection around us, bringing us back to the basics that make us one human race.

At CTTT-RVA, we recognize the importance of circles. Whatever your cultural or ethnic background, your ancestors probably sat in a circle. Many of the stories that we call sacred and many of the laws we have were originally told or made in a circle. The circle enfolds us and becomes a safe space that encourages people to seek ways to move beyond differences in a good way to build better relationships. Circles profoundly encourage and enable people to connect with one another as we pass our ideas, dreams and hopes for each other around the table — along with the potato salad. We do this not head to head, but side by side. Circles create the spaces for disagreement without being disagreeable.

Our mission is to provide leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. Our vision is of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past — from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned. CTTT-RVA has crafted a method to help others build relationships across the racial lines. We can help your community or organization grow, forging collaborative and diverse partnerships for success, impacting the future in profound and important ways. In this time more than ever, we encourage you to move the needle forward in building a just and equitable society, moving us beyond the original sin of enslavement that stunts our becoming a harmonized nation. Join us at the table and learn more about the history we share that separates us
still today in so many ways; let’s create a new narrative together.

There are several ways you can help. Consider joining us at the table and be enriched by the many people you will meet who are stepping up to make a difference. Become a volunteer and join us in the active pursuit of taking America beyond its legacy of enslavement. Look for a CTTT chapter in your area. Or consider financially supporting this work — recognizing both the pressing need for the work of racial healing and CTTT-RVA’s growing effectiveness and expanding potential, an anonymous donor has offered up to $250,000 as a one-to-one match for our donors’ gifts.

The most dangerous conversations are the ones we don’t have. So join us at the table, a safe space for connections that empower healing actions. Learn more at: comingtothetable-rva.org.

DANITA ROUNTREE GREEN is an author, transformational storyteller and Trauma-Informed Care specialist addressing historical and race-related issues in the former capital of the Confederacy. She is also co-founder and co-CEO of Coming to the Table-RVA, a nonprofit committed to racial healing in Richmond, Virginia.

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