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On MLK Day, Dallas Dinner Table serves up food for thought while hoping to open minds

The goal of the dinners -- a tradition sprung from tragedy -- is to gather people of different races over a meal and lead them to discovering community.
Credit: Dallas Dinner Table
Dallas Dinner Table

DALLAS — This year on the Martin Luther King National holiday, hundreds of Dallas residents will join the Dallas Dinner Table, as usual.

This year, because of COVID, they won’t be gathering around dining tables as they normally do. But the fare will be familiar.

Sincerity, kindness, and self-revelation.

Dallas Dinner Table was founded after the death of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998, when he was chained to the back of a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas by three white men and dragged until he died. 

The goal of the dinners -- springing from that tragedy -- is to gather people of different races over a meal and lead them into discovering community.

“America Without Racism, One Conversation at a Time” is the organization’s slogan.

Participants sign up; are assigned tables at scores of homes, businesses and churches around town; and are led through a series of thought-provoking exercises by facilitators. 

“There are ground rules,” says facilitator Jared Fitzpatrick. “But people let it all out. They ask questions like, ‘Why can’t I use the N word?’ This is not a debate. Nobody’s more important than anybody else.”

“There are 'Aha! Moments,'” says Cazeena Hunter, also a facilitator. “You’re working on yourself as it pertains to race. You’re sharing stuff you don’t normally share. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there’s joy. There’s smiles. There are thoughtful looks.”

Last year, 400 people participated via Zoom. This year, more are expected. Rather than dragging the event down, participants say having a virtual dinner actually makes people less inhibited.

“Just being able to see peoples’ heads, and not their body language (on Zoom), seems to make folks more forthcoming,” says Kim Koonce, a DDT board member. “White people seem to get emotional more often because they are learning something about living in a non-white world from the folks at the table (or the Zoom screen) for the first time. For people of different colors, who have to live in their own skin every day, there may be less revelation.”

Dallas Dinner Table does events for corporations and churches throughout the year with the goal of raising racial awareness. Koonce says the videos of recent events, such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, seem to have cemented the issue of race in peoples’ minds, making reflection more accessible.  

“We can’t move the chess piece more than one square at a time with these gatherings,” she says, “but we can make progress.”

And now DDT is spreading its techniques nationwide with a grant from the Rainwater Charitable Foundation in Fort Worth. 

In coming months, Dallas Dinner Table will become America’s Dinner Table. Until now, the events have been run entirely by volunteers. Now, DDT has its first full time employee, Dionne Kirby, whose mission, among other things, will be to spread the dinner table idea into other cities.

"It’s terribly exciting,” Kirby says.

Even if there’ll be no dinner at the tables for the foreseeable future.