Breaking Bread and Barriers

Omaha Table Talk digs deeper on race People don’t physically break bread any more, but that’s OK — it’s the idea that matters, says A’Jamal Byndon, director of Omaha Table Talk. Coming together and opening up remain the defining characteristics behind the organization, which hosts its seventh-annual series of dinner table discussions about race and culture Oct. 21. “When you’re having dinner with each other, people are on their best behavior,” Byndon says. “What is powerful about [Table Talk] is that you get to sit around with folks who are strangers, and that doesn’t happen often enough in Omaha.” Black, white, Latino, Asian — north, west, east, south. In 2004 Byndon saw a city too neatly divided. “Let’s just say I knew how to get away from the police,” he says, referring to the city’s stark economic and cultural divisions. Then working for Catholic Charities of Omaha, he heard of a successful dinner party series in Dallas that brought together people of all backgrounds for an open conversation on race. With the help of some colleagues, Byndon brought the idea of a Table Talk to Omaha, drawing 96 people in January 2004.The event grew fast, and organizers created a non-profit called Omaha Table Talk to help run it. Last year’s series drew 500 attendees at more than 50 sites. The Table Talk format hasn’t changed: 8 to 10 people gather at a host’s home to trade stories over dinner, while a trained facilitator guides conversation. Byndon says the gatekeeper keeps the dialogue civil. But this year, people willing to leave their comfort zone can choose between the standard talk and a more challenging discussion, which features tougher questions from the facilitator. “We’re digging deeper,” Byndon says.” We’ll ask about slavery and immigration. People say, ‘Let’s just forget about it.’ Forget nothing, Jack. We should be talking about this.” Shereen Bingham, communications professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and chair of the Table Talk facilitator committee, believes physically sharing dinner with strangers is critical to making the talks work. “It helps people build a relationship, and they see each other as individuals,” she says. “The situation just invites it.” Bingham hopes some of her qualitative research students will draw their own conclusions about the success of the series after conducting first-hand research on the discussions. “Qualitative research is a really valuable way to approach this,” Bingham says. “[It] values the opinions of the participants. You really want to have a relationship with your subject.” Students will research how Table Talk is perceived from different ethnic and political perspectives, the effectiveness of its marketing strategy and other elements. There’s more than just a grade in it for them — the group will present findings to the Table Talk board of directors. Byndon believes this willingness to examine the process will allow Table Talk to keep growing. He hopes to attract 1,000 people to future talks. “Some of us go through this journey and want to leave it better than we found it — we have a sense of allegiance to humanity,” he says. “Breaking bread and checking in once a year —that is what has kept us energized.” Omaha Table Talk runs Oct. 21 at various locations throughout Omaha. For more information visit omahatabletalk.com.

posted at 11:46 am
on Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

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