Community building as a means of solving problems, starting movements and conquering nations is not new. It has been utilized as long as human life has existed. Genghis Khan left to die with his mother and siblings developed an army that almost conquered the world. Jesus Christ with twelve disciples changed history and founded Christianity a powerful force even today. Through the efforts of a small group of men the thirteen colonies became a new nation. Fearless women worked together until they were given the right to vote. After spending time at the Highlander Folk School, Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on the bus started a movement that contributed to President Johnson signing a law that gave African Americans equal rights under that law. The aim of this writing is to look at what makes Family Dinner sustainable using Highlander as a comparable exemplar, and Critical Pedagogy as a foundation. To do so, this writing will be spilt in 3 parts: First, a narrative of Family Dinner, second, the chronicle of Highlander, and lastly, an analysis using the chronicle of Highlander and the theories of Critical Pedagogy, Marxism and Participatory Action Research to draw out the sustainable ideologies of Family Dinner. The limitations of this paper include the lack of firsthand Family Dinner member’s account; as they will be added to this writing in due course (namely after approval from the Internal Review Board.).
WHY HOST FAMILY DINNER?
Community building came about for me as a necessity. I was a suburbanite. We knew our neighbors by name but not much more. My affinity for extreme extraversion, desire for relationship, and juxtaposition of Blackness in a suburban white neighborhood would take me on a journey that would yield me an eclectic blend of company, thought, and quest.
Armed with the knowledge that education and upward mobility are directly correlated, I watched and I listened as my mother worked as a principal in the inner city and took part in activism in our Baptist church also in the inner city and wondered how to reconcile my everyday experience in my white-suburban-neighborhood.
This juxtaposition between the inner city happenings and that of the suburbs was staunch. It was apparent to me that there was a difference but it would become clearer how I fit in and how important building the bridge between the two would become for me during my course work in African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati.
In 2006 after graduating with my undergraduate degree my first job was with AmeriCorps as a Public Ally. I found myself living and working in the urban community. This move gave me the space to observe and reconcile what I was missing visiting the inner city for church, my mother’s job, and (after my parent’s divorce) my father. What I learned there was immeasurable but what changed my life was the very simple idea I had heard many times. What I know now is that nothing can suffice for a lived experience. Living these simple words has been life changing: It is necessary to accept everyone as they are and simply allow others to be themselves, and have regard for the importance of community and relationship building across lines of difference. This connects directly to my Public Allies experience as they are tied to two of Public Allies five core values:
· Diversity & Inclusion: The ability to work effectively and inclusively with different people and understand how to adapt to different cultures and environments.
· Collaboration: The ability to facilitate, negotiate, build consensus, build strong teams, and empower others. (publicallies.org)
With these two values at the helm and a huge transition of unveiling occurring, I began a journey of creating a space for community building that would include a safe space for all. That journey began in my home at a gathering we call, Family Dinner.
Looking back on its inception I can see the culmination of the above contributing to what is now Family Dinner. All that I could see then was relief from constant visitors and concentrating them on one night. Just after Sarah Buffie, one of my best friends returned home from PeaceCorps, serving in Namibia, Africa. She moved into the Village House. This was in February of 2009. I met Sarah serving side by side as Allies 2006-2007. Her personality matched mine and that meant the people who came to the village house had at the very least doubled. Her extraversion and passion for people was magnet. They wanted to talk, listen and seek advice. It seemed we cooked for people every night of the week. Between people coming just because of the open door policy and the folks from Public Allies who wanted to hear about Sarah’s Peace Corps experience we were entertaining and more concerning spending a lot of money to feed folks. From that, the decision to concentrate our entertainment to one night came. Alas, Family Dinner was born. Since March 2010 every Wednesday we have had a potluck dinner in the “Village House”.
WHERE IS FAMILY DINNER
Seeking to practice these and all of the core values in my life would play out in ways I could not have imagined. The choice to move to Northside was intentional. Northside’s website boasts that it is an urban neighbor that has, “…a unique blend of classic homes, eclectic and traditional businesses and entertainment venues, and a long tradition of community activism… [and] is the place to be for those who want an urban environment, yet also want to connect with their neighbors just as if they lived in a small town.”
From the purchase of my house named from the time of signing “The Village House” it has had an open door policy. People have come to stay for a year and some for a night. Visitors have shared many meals andconversation. 1518 Lingo Street Cincinnati, Ohio 45223 still houses passersby and long term visitors and has expanded to become a place of gathering for not just the “family” but for branches of the Family Dinner tree. Namely, Hey Girl Hey a group of queers of color, held monthly.
Equally as important as the house where we gather is the table at which we commune. We sit at the table as a family and we check-in with one another there. It all began with storytelling over food and drinks.
It has grown from these few people pictured above to upwards of 40 every Wednesday night. Where family dinner would go from here could not have been expected. We simply invited our friends to eat and before we knew it they were inviting there friends, and neighbors. Sarah and I were inviting anyone we met. Soon people were asking us about Family dinner. The explanation was hard to describe. So we took to explaining it as a potluck for everybody to get to know one another build community and support each other. That is exactly how I would describe it today.
WHAT IS FAMILY DINNER
Family Dinner is truly an experience that is heavy on the senses. We have food on the table to satisfy most palates. There are vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, carnivores, Dieter, Naturalists and the list goes on. People have used food to make political points, and to explain their morals and values as pictured below.
We use music to bind us. New bands have brought cd’s to serenade us. Bands have actually come and given us the joy of live music. Pictured below is Baoku from The Image Afro Beat band playing a drum for his own birthday celebration. Listening to an Afro beat, a musical combination of western jazz with African instruments and languages “is a musical expression of peace, love, unity, truth and justice”, says Baoku. We have had music from every genre. Music has been shared in every way including aspiring dj’s that have made Family Dinner albums for holidays. Bonding through music allows people to share across race, and ethnic boundaries. In this space we accept people as they are and listen to their stories in every form.
Drew who lived across the street at the inception of family dinner and has since moved shared fire poi-ing. Fire Poi-ing, a fire art in which lit wicks are spun on cords around the body to create patterns. His skill was put to music and drew the attention of people who have not seen such a display of talent. This also has the benefit of the children’s wide eyes and bright smiles. The fire is not always being thrown. We have a fire lit in the fire pit (pictured below) in warmer months; that has inspired a warm fireside chat that has accelerated the heat by lively debate.
Immediately upon entrance, one can’t help but notice the people. People are everywhere. They’re enjoying a meal around the dinner table, they’re watching television in the room known as the “design gallery”, they’re debating over a smoke and a glass of wine in the backyard. Sometimes they’re even meandering on the sidewalk or down the street. And these people are diverse. Family dinners range in age from wee little babies to crotchety old folks and their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds are just as diverse as the dishes they bring. Family Dinner is unique every week. What is consistence is our acceptance of everyone as they are or simply that we allow others to be themselves, and that they seek to understand the importance of community and relationship building across lines of difference. What that means as I’m sure you can imagine can look differently depending on the crowd.
It’s unique in Cincinnati. Cincinnati has a history of racial divide. So to answer who is at Family Dinner one would have to answer, come and see. That is not the only question we get. To answer those frequently asked questions someone and to this day I’m still not sure who took the initiative to create a page for Northside Family Dinner on facebook. It has pictures so folks know what to expect and the expanded version of frequently asked questions (written below).
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Do you do this every week?
A: Yes! Every week-without fail.
Q: How long have you been doing this?
A: Since January 2010.
Q: What time should I come?
A: We usually begin around 6pm, but you're free to swing by whenever you're free.
Q: Should I call before I come over?
A: Not unless you need directions.
Q: Can I invite MY friends?
A: Of course, provided they bring the customary "peace offering" of $50 and a bottle of wine...(just kidding about the $50)
Q: Can I bring my kids?
Q: Are they good?
A: Yeah, most of the time...
A: Well then, OF COURSE!!!
Q: Can I bring my dog(s)?
A: Sure-we've got a wonderfully delightful little yappy pug/rat terrier mix that loves to meet new friends!
Q: How can you afford to feed 60+ people every week?
A: We can't-that's why it's potluck! So dust off the cookbooks and come correct with a kickass dish!
Wine/beer is also GREATLY appreciated!
Though people have moved out of the community of Northside we still see a sustained crowd of people who enjoy the community, including those who can only visit on occasion because of proximity and various other reasons.
WHO IS IN THE FAMILY?
The people who come are family dinner. Because of the diversity of the crowd and the transit nature of our city who you will see at any given dinner a different crowd with some regulars. There are some faithful family members and some who follow from afar and visit when they can.
For example, if you arrive at 6pm, you’ll probably see Joe. Joe is tall, with wild short dreads and most likely having a conversation with you within fifteen minutes of your arriving. Even if his conversation is not what you had planned on engaging in, Joe is a good guy – good for conversation and good for washing a few dishes now and then (which when you use no throw away dishes and serve 40 plus people who may or may not clean up after themselves is immeasurable). You can never really be too sure who will trickle in after this, but one thing you can be sure of is that by 8 pm, you will look around and wonder where all these people came from. No, literally, where did they come from?
Visitors can be anyone from a first timer who owns a neighborhood business who is promoting it like the woman from the newly opened flower shop down the street. It could even be a celebrity in their own right like Claire Buffie , Miss New York 2010, who during the time of her visit was spending most of her time traveling the state of New York promoting the Miss New York Organization, her personal platform Straight for Equality: Let's Talk and the Children's Miracle Network. At Miss America LIVE on ABC in January, she was chosen as America's Choice Finalist by public vote to be the next Miss America - she finished in the Top 12! What’s most cool is that she came all the way from New York and made certain to visit family dinner. Claire (pictured right) is Sarah (pictured middle) sister. She knew that Family Dinner was an active crew of individuals who for the most part are liberal and support her campaign for equality for the queer community.
That is an example of family dinner becoming a space for individuals to promote platforms from Immigration rights to gay rights. Family dinner has many politically active people. Family dinner as noted was started by Public Allies and their close friends. This organization promotes community engagement and prepares young leaders to take part in the community in which they live. Though the community has grown beyond the Public Allies community it has attracted activists alike.
Promoting specific agendas both outside of and inside of the Family Dinner community has been a consistent thread. Family dinner members have supported each other in all kinds of events and milestones from political rallies, talent displays, to new born babies and holiday celebrations.
WHAT ARE FAMILY DINNER TRADITIONS?
Every week we celebrate birthdays (pictured below). There is a candle for each person in the room who has a birthday. We have found that a Family Dinner birthday celebration is quite important to people. They make certain the week before to be sure we are aware that their birthday is coming up!
We have had several babies born during the last 2 years. Parents bring their infants to be passed around as part of the family (Katie holding a newborn, pictured below). During this time we are celebrating the child’s chosen family. We make certain that all of the family’s children are nurtured. We give the children their own play space in the design gallery. They eat and play together. We share parenting of the children and use this opportunity to share with the children the same core values we share as a Family, the importance of community and valuing people as individuals.
We have shared celebrations from Christmas (pictured below) to Hanukah. I am the host and my given family celebrates Christmas as one can see depicted below. Nonetheless, during the Holiday season we give space for all to share their holidays and customs.More specifically, in the photo below is a poetry reading in December 2010. These people are sharing their thoughts and traditions from their given families, their personal stories, and/or whatever they choose in this open forum. We laugh we cry and above all else we support each other. Family dinner has no rules or boundaries; other than it is essential to respect and support one another.
The family has taken “vacations” (pictured below a potluck at Northside Tavern) we are supporting Nature World Music, a talented group of musicians that attend Family Dinner regularly and had a performance on Wednesday night during our regular meeting time. The family came to support. The people at Northside Tavern watched and eventually took part in amazement and our family grew because of it.
Family Dinner is a gathering where the people who come build community and build relationships across differences. We respect and support each other. It will last as long as the Family comes. It will grow organically as the Family contributes and sees fit. We are open to what comes of it. What is certain is that we had no idea what it would be become and we have no idea what will come of it but be believe that whatever is in store will feed our souls and guide us on our journeys in this life.