At the end of March, I applied to attend a dinner event promoted by the Treehouse Institute.
As part of a three-month long series known as A Seat at the Table, a concept invented and implemented by Portland's Chanel Lewis, the dinner represented an opportunity to engage in difficult dialogues with fellow Portland residents concerning a variety of issues. The series featured several meet-ups open to the public, occurring in casual spaces with an emphasis on discussing complex social issues. On the final Thursday of the month, an invitation-only dinner was hosted at the Press Hotel.
I met Lewis last year at a networking event for people of color, sponsored by her now-shuttered organization, Represent. Unsurprisingly, there was a small, but vibrant community in attendance. That particular evening introduced me to a number of well-known Portland residents of color, including City Council member at-large Pious Ali, and Roberto Rodriguez, who serves on the Board of Education for Portland Public Schools.
At the time of the networking event, I was freelancing for a national digital outlet, focusing on cultural commentary. Since then, I’ve taken a consulting position at the Maine Youth Action Network (MYAN), hoping to help improve public health by creating opportunities for youth engagement in social justice initiatives. It feels important to mention this only because my approach toward activism has transitioned from personal to professional, leaving me with less incentive to dedicate my free time to activist meetups. A Seat at the Table reminded me I can do both.
Shamefacedly, I’ll admit I only attended one meet-up by Represent. There’s something uniquely awkward and depressing to me about a group of colored folks striving to create a sense of camaraderie in New England, a place that prides itself on being open and affirming while its minority citizens consistently feel alienated and underrepresented. I recognize the importance of the community, but in the wake of the election, I lost most of my drive to do anything other than sulk.
This dinner was different. The topic of conversation was sex, gender, and identity. My friend Shane Diamond, the Executive Director and founder of Speak About It, an organization I recently wrote about for their involvement in directing a service industry-based bystander intervention training (see "Are Portland Bars Safe For Everyone?" in the April 13 issue), was the facilitator.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the dinner felt so successful, but I left rejuvenated in a way that felt almost spiritual. The attendees, chosen by offering seats to people of differing socio-economic status, religion, age, political affiliation, and race, were a group of people trying to have a conversation based on the assumption that all had something to learn at a table with such diverse view points.
The sense of cautious hope I left with has persisted despite this country’s efforts to stamp it out. At the start of the dinner, Lewis mentioned the importance of breaking bread with one another as a symbol of friendship and family, but left out the details of the dinner’s conception. So I asked her a few questions about how she’d come up with the idea, in hopes it might be replicated.
SK: Where did this idea come from?
CL: The idea came from feeling like I was only talking to people [who] thought the way I do. I wanted everyone to have seats at the table.
How is this series being funded?
We have a private funder for the operational costs. Union Restaurant has donated the space and meals for our dinners. We've also received funding from Red Thread!
What are the goals for this series?
To break down silos, talk to people you normally wouldn't about issues that matter to all of us, and to practice listening to understand, rather than listening to agree.
How many people have attended the public meetings so far?
Advice for people interested in hosting their own version?
Hit me up! This model is totally replicable and I make all our materials Creative Commons so folks can use it!