by Robbie Owens | CBS 11

Out of horror, hope.

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North Texans joined the world in June of 1998 struggling to make sense of the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas: dragged to his death by three white men who had chained him to the back of a pickup truck.

The murder later prompted books and movies– but the Leadership Dallas alumni class (a regional leadership development program founded by the Dallas Regional Chamber ) wanted to make a difference.

That effort became known as ‘Dallas Dinner Table.’

“We usually get together in small groups of eight to 10 per table,” explains Board Chair Beverley Wright, “and we have a facilitated conversation about race.”

Wright has been the Dallas Dinner Table board chair since 2002. She’s served as leader, facilitator, and at one point, a first-time diner.

“It just changed me,” shares Wright with no hesitation. “It taught me so much about me and the unconscious biases that I had.”

Wright was born in Dallas, but says the family often travelled to her parents’ hometown of Nacogdoches in East Texas.

“And I had some not great memories of how my Dad was treated as an adult male,” recalls Wright, “that [he]was called ‘boy’. And I didn’t realize how deeply seated those were until I participated in Dallas dinner table–because there was a white gentleman in our group that said he was from Nacogdoches, and immediately without me even thinking about it, all my fences went up.”

Wright recalls that as “God would have it”, the person seated next to her at the dinner was the one person she most wanted to avoid.

“And we had conversation over dinner,” recalls Wright. “And he told me that he was 13 years old before he knew that the `N word’ was not the proper name for black people. And what I started understanding in our conversation is that, just like me, he was a kid. He grew up with no prejudices, until someone wrote that on his blank slate.”

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The community dinners are always free– sometimes held in private homes, restaurants, community centers or church fellowship halls on the MLK holiday– although prior registration is required.

Wright says the goal is not to rewrite history– but to learn from it through another’s perspective. And yes, painful new chapters are always being added: like the videotaped death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

“And I think, to actually see someone begging for their life, calling for their deceased mother, while someone casually kneels on their neck made a difference,” says Wright, “and I think now people are having to make a choice. And they’re saying `if I don’t do something now this is this is very clearly who I am.”

In the months that followed, Wright says there has been a new level of interest in Dallas Dinner Table– and a new level of corporate support. She says CEOs are being pressed by their own consciences and by employees to do more to acknowledge and address the nation’s racial divide. It is past time for racism to become everyone’s problem.

“Like most white people, I think we didn’t have to think about race and so we didn’t,” admits Simmons Lettre, who joined Dallas Dinner Table for the first time last month from the D.C. area. Lettre had already been working on a similar effort there. This year’s ‘virtual’ dinners providing an opportunity to set more places at a table, loaded with good things.

“It was a place for healing. It’s a place for understanding. It’s a place for listening. And it’s a place for growing,” says Lettre. “I feel so much more…so much more human, honestly, to be able to see the world as it really is and to be able to understand how the wind has been at my back all of these years.”

Lettre says she encourages her daughters to “seek out people who are different from them, because it will make them better people.”

Supporters say the goal of Dallas Dinner Table is to provide a safe space to grow. And the nonprofit is growing as well. Leaders are connecting with other groups across the country, training facilitators and looking to become “America’s Dinner Table” in the near future.

“We make it easier for people to come as they are with whatever, they can ask the questions they’ve been nervous about asking in a nonjudgmental environment,” adds Wright, “and that’s the only way we’re going to really move the needle together.”

So to those who have been perhaps considering coming to dinner, Lettre says this:

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“So, if you’re afraid to have those conversations, that’s okay. Lots of people are afraid to have those conversations. The scarier thing is when we don’t.”