My hometown is beautiful because it is willing to talk about its ugliness.
I’ve been off my blog beat the past two weeks, focused on this event one year in the planning – and then all the fallout of the other things I wasn’t focused on because of the Reconciliation dinner. So I just have this to offer you – the recent newsletter I wrote summarizing our dinner. It takes you through much of the evening’s timeline and content – but its significance is one I’ll be unpacking for some time to come.
On August 27, just over 100 people gathered at the Petroleum Club in downtown Shreveport to take part in the city’s inaugural Reconciliation Dinner. A diverse group of individuals — black and white, young and older, men and women — who have devoted themselves to the work of improving racial justice and social equity came together to discuss their personal stories, the challenges we face in Shreveport today, and what kind of city we might be in the future.
Conversation took place over a meal that celebrated our local North Louisiana cuisine, expertly prepared by Chef Hardette Harris, creator of the Official Meal of North Louisiana. The familiarity of this comfort food — greens, cornbread, smoked meats — foods we all ate at grandmothers’ tables, warmed the conversation, facilitating greater ease and flow of dialogue.
During the evening, the “Pioneers” of civil rights in Shreveport were honored. The Pioneers of Reconciliation comprised a non-exhaustive list of those who have gone before us, in many cases sacrificing and risking everything to blaze new paths to begin tearing down oppressive barriers to equality.
Four guests shared their own personal experience through a storytelling exercise we called the Sawa Bona moment. In the South African Zulu language, “Sawa Bona” is a unique greeting, which literally means, “I see you.” More broadly, however, it means, “I see you, I value you, and I witness you and am listening.” The respondent replies, “Sikhona,” meaning, “I am here.” I am here because you have seen my humanity; your acknowledgment and deep listening validates me and gives me identity. Each of the four Sawa Bona storytellers told a brief personal story, holding a single candle, before a room rapt with quiet attention. Rosie Chaffold delivered an unflinching look at the realities of deep and institutionalized racism, and told how her decades-long fight to transform a community through a neighborhood garden revealed more cross-cultural similarities than differences. Laurie Lyons spoke of her own painful coming-of-age on the privileged side of social inequity in Shreveport, a reality rarely discussed or revealed that proved to be a catalyst in her own life.
After dinner, the seven Rising Voices were acknowledged and an excerpt read of their essays on a vision for stronger reconciliation in Shreveport. As seven young people under 40, these Rising Voices have already made significant personal investments and great strides in local human rights. Their exceptional leadership and promise lies not only in their vision for a more equitable and just Shreveport, but also – and perhaps especially – in their insistence we take deep and realistic stock of how racism affects us all today.
PoeticX, Shreveport’s poet laureate, capped the evening and brought the crowd to their feet with his powerful poem, “When We Shake Hands ©,” written for the occasion. Click Here for a printable copy of the poem, or better yet, watch this talented spoken word artist deliver it himself.
Sponsors and in-kind supporters made the evening possible, including the generosity of our hosting location, the Petroleum Club and Chef Eddie Mars.
The Reconciliation Dinner Shreveport was a success. And yet, we acknowledge, it was also only a baby step towards a stronger spirit of reconciliation for our city. Certainly, an event is not a movement, a dinner itself does not make social change. But perhaps with heightened visibility, a little murmur of noise and discussion in what has so long been deafening silence, perhaps we can bring greater acknowledgment of and emboldening to discuss what one Rising Voice called “the two Shreveports.” This will only be possible with momentum. Where we go from here, in ways small and large, formal and informal, will shape our true success and the overall health of our shared future.
Dinner guests were provided a brochure of dialogue techniques and conversation starters to help support their existing efforts in office breakrooms, school classrooms and around dinner tables. (Click Here to view or download a pdf of this brochure).
To move forward together, we want to hear from you. Where are constructive conversations around race and racism occurring in your orbit? At your church? Your child’s school? Your workplace? Or maybe in the quiet of your own living room? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with where efforts in reconciliation are happening in Shreveport, that we might better connect and support each other.