Taking the Conversation About Race Offline

I Took A Difficult Online Conversation About Race Offline, And Met Strangers For Dinner

How the grand jury's decision in Ferguson changed one entrepreneur's business—and a community. [via FastCompany.com]

It was a familiar hum. When you hear the helicopters begin to hover over Oakland, you know the people have taken to the streets. I reached for my phone. There it was: A grand jury had not indicted Darren Wilson over the killing of Michael Brown.

For the rest of the night I sat at my computer reading other people’s responses to the news, watching videos of discontent posted in my Facebook feed, and following the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot.

In the days that followed, social media felt less and less adequate, making the need for something different glaringly obvious.

Moving Offline

Out of a personal sense of urgency, more than any strategic plan, I posted the following on my Facebook feed:

After another sleepless night reflecting on the justice crisis facing our country, I feel prompted to move the conversation offline—to create a safe space to have a dialog about race, violence, oppression, inequality, and what it means to walk alongside one another. It’s a topic I wish we discussed more around the dinner table. So, since so many of us live alone (or live with people who look like us), if you’re interested in having a family-style dinner, with the intention of talking about what’s going on, let me know. If we get a critical mass, I’ll work to set up dinners so we can meet face-to-face.

I posted a link to a Google forum and within 24 hours hundreds of people had expressed interest. I began receiving messages from friends of friends and strangers, alike. People requested dinners in over 12 cities, some outside of the United States.

Clearly, I was not alone.

In a world where we share so much online, there was a deep desire for moving this singularly difficult conversation offline. I’d hit a nerve and Deliberate Discourse was born. I frantically fumbled to create a workflow to organize dinners for the few friends and many strangers who had trusted me with their information.

It had always been my intention to plan offline community events for the audience developing around deliberateLIFE, the digital magazine I launched in 2013. Our manifesto is based on the principle that individual choices matter and that in our vision of the future, we move forward together. We have readers in 52 countries, and although this allows us to provide a resource to a global community interested in living well and doing good, there are obvious limits.

I would have waited until we had the bandwidth as a company to "do it right" but I felt it was more important to start somewhere than to not start at all. This was, perhaps, a benefit of that startup "ship, ship, ship" mentality. Dinner would be served.

Creating The Right Space

Last week we held our first Deliberate Discourse dinners in Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. We gathered around the table in small groups of five or six to talk about a topic that makes many people uncomfortable. Over the course of two hours, I watched in amazement at how creating a safe space for dialogue moved people deeply.

As we began each dinner, I asked those in attendance what motivated them to come. Andre Anderson, a 41-year-old sales executive who lives in San Francisco, shared that he had felt hopeless after reading through his Facebook feed, feeling stuck in an echo chamber with no way to actually engage. He had read my post and immediately felt a sense of hope that there could be a space for discourse.

We’ve all heard the saying that one should refrain from talking about politics and money at the dinner table. Unfortunately, in our effort to be polite, we lose the ability to be honest and vulnerable about important matters. By coming together with the intention of talking about a topic that is often uncomfortable, we signal that we are open to moving through our discomfort to connect more deeply.

Getting Past Discomfort To Discussion

At the close of each dinner, someone inevitably admitted that they almost didn’t come. Even though they longed to have more meaningful conversation, they had been nervous to actually voice their opinions on such a sensitive topic. Two hours later, they couldn’t have imagined not attending.

The participants were not the only ones nervous about the dinners. I had confided to a close black friend that I felt uneasy coordinating such dinners in light of the desire to let friends of color take the lead. She had encouraged me to do it anyway and I am glad she did.

Lynette Ward, a 33-year-old social services worker admitted that she had to get over some concerns to attend. After the dinner she wrote: "I’m so glad that I decided to push through being uncomfortable and challenge myself as did all of you. Thank you all for creating a safe environment where I felt like I could speak my truth and not feel like a whining victim. I truly appreciate everyone’s willingness to be open and honest. I left that space feeling a little less overwhelmed by the everyday harsh realities that come with living in black skin."

As I watched those who had previously been strangers hug and exchange contact details with their table mates, I was reminded that it’s often the simplest things in life that are the most meaningful. Choosing to participate in deliberate discourse is a small but powerful act that creates human connection, a fundamental component needed to combat racism, bias, and any other entrenched problem.


Moving Forward

In the weeks to come, there are dinners scheduled in Washington, D.C., Portland, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Attendees from our first dinners have begun reaching out to friends in other cities, and we’re actively working to coordinate dinners in Austin, Atlanta, and Denver.

There’s also talk of continuing the conversations in each city. One of the tables from our San Francisco dinner has already made plans to meet again. In the future, we will plan Deliberate Discourse events around other difficult—and important—topics like climate change, education, sustainability, health, and ethically produced products.

Deliberate Discourse has been a concept in our business plan for over two years, but as I watch it come to life in communities around the country, I am reminded of why investors always say ideas are a dime a dozen. It really is the execution that matters. People really are the killer app. We will continue to to facilitate conversations online, and through our app, but offline is where we hope to see our ideas come to life.