An assortment of platters line a linen tablecloth. As guests pass dishes around the table, the peppy noise of chatter fills the air, growing as the night progresses. A setting like no other, a dinner table is perhaps among the best environments to engage strangers in vital conversation.
Ricardo Reinoso took advantage of this unique atmosphere by founding a nonprofit called Cleveland Dinners in February 2020. His group aims to alleviate the discomfort associated with discussions about race by using carefully curated meals to stimulate conversation.
“The impetus for doing the dinners concept was the fact that we, and I myself, personally, feel that the safest place to have a conversation is around the dinner table,” Reinoso said. “There’s a certain sense of intimacy that you have around the dinner table where you tend to, ideally, let your guard down a bit more.”
Every other month, 40 to 50 guests attend a Cleveland Dinner. The free events are virtual for now, but in the near future, Reinoso and his team plan to offer in-person dinners in addition to an online option.
The dinners revolve around a theme that becomes the night’s conversation starter. Each dinner is divided into several courses to provide a setting that enriches discussion.
The first course is the cocktail hour that serves as a casual introduction allowing participants to prepare for the upcoming discussion. The cocktail hour features a media showcase including slideshows, videos, and presentations by local musicians.
Every cocktail hour is different, as the contents of the course change to suit the desires of the host, a member of the Cleveland Dinners team who plans the event from start to finish.
Between the cocktail hour and the dinner lies the performance piece. During this segment, participants watch a piece of media that guides the conversations to come. The performance piece can be anything ranging from a series of videos to a locally written monologue performed by an actor. This variety not only allows the host to choose a medium best suited for the topic of the dinner, but it also ensures that recurring diners receive a unique experience each time they attend a dinner.
Other than the discussions themselves, the performance piece may be the most crucial portion of the dinner, Reinoso said.
“[It] is meant to be something that shares an experience,” he said. “[It puts] you in that place where you’re comfortable enough to have a conversation.”
After this course, participants split into breakout rooms with trained facilitators to begin the dinner course. Cleveland Dinners asks participants to include their race in their Zoom username, allowing the tech specialist of the team to construct the breakout rooms in such a way that maximizes diversity and fosters rich conversation.
Each breakout room is small, comprising only five guests. The intimacy of these groups provides a more comforting environment in which participants are more willing to share their thoughts.
To jump start the conversation, facilitators use a menu card containing a few questions regarding the night’s topic. Afterward, participants freely converse, with the facilitators acting only as a guide to keep the conversation flowing. With discussions of this nature, emotion is both expected and encouraged.
“It’s a real conversation,” said Dietra Hawkins, a facilitator who also trains other facilitators. “If people aren’t a little bit emotional, or a lot bit real, then I’m not sure that we’re having the experience that people are wanting to have.”
To close out the night, by way of dessert, a local poet performs a personal selection or two.
A Rippling Impact
The results have been phenomenal, Reinoso said, adding that he has seen participants from all over the U.S. Within the breakout rooms, facilitators have reported impactful, insightful, and inclusive conversations, during which all participants share at least one personal experience.
During Cleveland Dinners’ virtual feedback sessions, a number of participants have shared their newfound awareness about experiences that people of color face. Many have expressed their intent to apply this knowledge in the future, whether it be by attending a protest or sharing their knowledge with family and friends.
The impact of the meals isn’t limited to Northeast Ohio, either. So inspired was one woman, she replicated this style of discussion in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina.
When asked how members of the community can get involved with Cleveland Dinners, the team unanimously agreed that the most advantageous method of connecting with the organization was through registering for a dinner.
“If we want to see change happen, we need you to show up,” Hawkins said.
Noor Shah is a high school intern for The Land.