January 18, 2019
By Ron Leonardi
Erie’s Mayor Joe Schember’s vision of inclusion, diversity and equity for Erie is rooted in the tenets of The People’s Supper, a national initiative designed to bring diverse groups together through a series of shared meals.
“The No. 1 point in our vision is that we celebrate the rich cultural diversity that we have in Erie, and we have a level of diversity that other communities just don’t have,” Schember said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I really feel, to transform Erie. One of my goals is to eliminate racism and prejudice, and have everyone accepted for who they are regardless of the color of their skin, their educational background, their religious preferences and their sexual preferences.”
About 80 people attended Erie’s inaugural The People’s Supper event on Thursday evening at the Erie Insurance Event Center in downtown Erie. An additional seven suppers are scheduled in the Erie region through June.
The program’s goal is to strengthen communities by healing the breach in interpersonal relationships caused by racial, ethnic, political, ideological, sexual and religious differences.
The People’s Supper project began in January 2017 through the efforts of three national organizations: Faith Matters Network, The Dinner Party and Hollaback.
“I think what we were feeling two years ago in the post-election moment was that, regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, folks were grieving,” said Jennifer Bailey, co-founder of The People’s Supper, and founder and executive director of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Faith Matters Network. “Whether it was grieving the state of our democracy or just grieving the lack of civility in our discourse, The People’s Supper started as a campaign. We were out to do 100 dinners in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. We did 114 dinners. ”
Bailey, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, visited Erie on Thursday to help launch the city’s inaugural dinner.
Since its inception two years ago, The People’s Supper has conducted more than 1,500 suppers in more than 120 communities nationwide, Bailey said. The initiative works with faith communities, schools, city governments and neighborhood organizations to overcome prejudice and bias.
“The organization has evolved as the needs have evolved,” Bailey said. “During that first 100 days, people were just desperate and hungry for conversation, whether that was bridging with someone who may have voted different politically from them or just having healing conversations in their community. What we’ve noticed is that more and more we’re doing partnerships like the one we’re so proud to be doing with the mayor’s office in Erie.”
The first 100 days of The People’s Supper movement focused on connecting with strangers, Bailey said.
What Bailey has seen her organization evolve into in the last two years is a growing interaction with “people who have wanted to dig deeper within their own communities.”
“It’s not just the folks who share a different political ideology from you,” Bailey said. “It’s folks who have different identities live next door. We’re at a time when folks don’t even know their neighbors anymore, so this framework of doing the simple thing of gathering together for a meal has been a really good venue for people to connect with their neighbors.”
The suppers target the following identity groups: African-Americans, New Americans, Latino and Hispanic Americans, and White Americans.
“I think the most important thing is they get to relate and know each other as human beings, respect each other and realize that the more we can value everybody, the more everyone can contribute to our society, and we can have a very unique and productive community in Erie if we just accept each other for who we are and what we are,” Schember said.
Thursday’s event was classified by organizers as a “bridging” supper, in which people from all four groups were seated together to intermingle at each of about a dozen tables.
“Bridging suppers are designed to bridge across lines of political, ideological, racial difference, and for folks who are looking to connect with people who are different from them,” Bailey said.
Each table had one or two hosts who guided conversations and who took notes on conversation themes and concerns to be evaluated and used for the program’s future action steps segment.
Three bridging dinners are among the eight scheduled suppers. Another four events will focus on “affinity” suppers, which are geared toward a specific identity group.
Additional suppers are scheduled for Feb. 7, Feb. 21, March 6, March 27, April 11 and May 23. The next five suppers are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m., and the May 23 supper will be held from 6 to 9 p.m.
A community celebration supper is scheduled for June 17 from 4 to 6 p.m. Each supper can accommodate a maximum of 90 people. The mayor’s office issues invitations for all suppers.
“Out of these suppers, we’ll make a series of recommendations back to the community about ways we can make Erie as inclusive and as reflective as the beautiful diversity as possible that’s here in Erie,” Bailey said.
Schember said he hopes the dinners will break down barriers and deepen trust by helping people understand one another.
The next People’s Supper is scheduled for Feb. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Home House of Erie, 1861 Buffalo Road, in Erie.
“The People’s Supper is really a project about social healing,” Bailey said. “It’s about creating the connective tissue that people are hungry for through conversations as a first step. We like to say internally on our team that relationships move at the speed of trust and social change moves at the speed of relationships. We’re in the business of trying to establish connections of trust with people across the country.”