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Non-Profit Opening Race Conversations One Dinner At A Time

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into riots and angry protests, the nation’s reaction to the unrest quite predictably split along racial lines.

According to a national survey conducted August 14-17 by the Pew Research Center, blacks were about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen by a white police officer, raised important issues about race that warranted further discussion.

“I’m just so weary that it’s 2014 and we’re still having these conversations,” said Beverly Wright. But, she also insists that riots are not the solution, either. “Most of the time when riots happen, they happen in the neighborhood of the people that don’t have anything in the first place. There are other ways to get attention to the issue.”

As chairperson of the Dallas Dinner Table, Wright believes strongly that the way to chip away at the racial tensions that so often set the stage for unrest is to talk about the largely avoided topic of race. It is what Wright calls the “heart work” that needs to fill in the gaps that the “head work”, the laws and policies, cannot touch.

“The heart work is what happens when you have people sit around and talk about these uncomfortable issues.” And that’s the goal of Dallas Dinner Table.

The Dallas Dinner Table was created in 1999 through the efforts of the Leadership Dallas Alumni. The group was searching for a way to address racial tensions and mistrust following the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. The goal was to encourage communication about race and ethnicity without judgment or fear of attack.

The event was held from 2002-2009, with over 5,000 people participating. Now as an independent non-profit, the Dallas Dinner Table was revived in 2014. Supporters have an ambitious goal of taking the program nationwide.

“With what just happened in Ferguson, there’s just no doubt that a million people sitting down having dinner should be everybody’s goal,” said Peter Aguirre, a frequent facilitator of the dinners that are held in January to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “The only question should be ‘how fast can we get there?’”

Aguirre says his father was a Dallas city councilman when Santos Rodriguez was killed and “it just troubles me that not that much has changed.”

Still, 70-year-old Bernie Mayoff—also a DDT veteran—believes that Dallas’ willingness to address racial issues has provided some insulation from the riots that rocked Ferguson. “I don’t think it would have happened here,” said Mayoff, who said he made his first trip to South Dallas [beyond the State Fair], to participate in one of the dinners. “They stop becoming ‘they’… you build that bridge.”

Mayoff grew up in Chicago. His father was a business owner, but his drug store was burned in the riots that followed the King assassination.

Despite the events and the impact on his family Mayoff said his parents were clear about right and wrong. “They [parents] taught us the right things, whether they believed it all themselves or not. But, they taught us to deal with people, as people.”

And while Wright says it is often an exhausting battle—she sees it as one that is owed future generations. “People want to talk about it [race] in a safe place where what they’re thinking and feeling is not misconstrued.”

Over the years, Wright said she has seen hearts soften and minds open. “One year a young white man said affirmative action had killed his father’s small trucking firm,” she recalled. “No one said anything.”

The rules that govern participation insist that no statements can be challenged… the goal is to allow each diner to share his/her perspective on race freely. But, by the end of the evening, “in three and a half hours, he had moved from blaming affirmative action for the failure of his father’s trucking firm, to just being open a little bit to something else that could have been true. I will always remember: he said ‘maybe my father was just a poor business man.’”

Registration for the 2014 Dallas Dinner Table is expected to get underway later this fall.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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