In 2005, a group of citizens from diverse faith and social communities came together to explore what Mississippi might look like if it were a social justice state. What might be the conversations and actions we would undertake to make Mississippi a better place for everyone specifically through overcoming racism?
The Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice, as the ad hoc group became known, decided to promote educational dialogue in communities that would lead toward achieving justice across the state. We believe that change comes through dialogue and relationship building, followed by effective community action.
In June 2006, the group kicked off a year of dialogue around the state with a gathering of over 300 citizens at the state capitol. Dialogue projects began in each of the four congressional districts over the next year, but one lesson emerged: there are a number of Mississippians who want to address issues of race and who understand the obstacles that race has placed before their communities’ development. Many, however, don’t know where to begin and are afraid to do the wrong thing and so they don’t act. So, while there is much interest in engaging in dialogue (and moving toward substantive action), there is a great need to build the capacity of citizens to engage in such dialogue effectively.
Thus, with support from the Fetzer Institute and the Kellogg Foundation, the Winter Institute initiated an era of dialogue on race, beginning with a pilot training program in fall 2008 and spring 2009. The effort was a series of retreats and community development training offered to small groups of Mississippians dedicated to fostering positive change in their communities.
Using elements from a variety of traditions and models, including using stories to convey and exemplify universal truths, this process provided a safe space in which members of divided communities could learn to listen to and trust each other. WT facilitation teams created safe spaces for participants both within communities and in an intensive retreat session for key community leaders in which sensitive issues could be discussed and explored without fear of personal attack. Over time, the participants learned to create such environments on their own and to teach that practice to others. By sharing with community leaders how to listen effectively to each other and to build trust, the Welcome Table aimed to help participants engage in inclusive and meaningful conversations about the place they call home.
Beginning in January 2010, four Mississippi communities invited the Winter Institute to begin implementing the Welcome Table model. Local community leaders from Greenwood, McComb, Philadelphia, and Oxford participated in initial meetings to begin building trust, followed by a 2 1/2 day retreat of reflection and relationship building. Over the next two years local leaders began identifying and implementing actions plans around community issues, with support from the Winter Institute. With community guidance and leadership, institute staff refined and adapted the model for community needs and began a new phase of work. Our hope remains that community leaders envision a common future together in the state and region and eventually identify issues to research, analyze, and advocate on behalf of, as well as create local programs and policies to address those issues. Beginning In 2011 many new communities invited the institute to begin the Welcome Table process in their locales, including the Welcome Table New Orleans, which was sponsored by the office of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and lasted from 2014-2016.
From the earliest days, a philosophy of the Welcome Table has been expressed in these words, which remain true today:
We stand on the cusp of change, which could be positive or negative. Leadership will make the difference. At its core, the Welcome Table recognizes that we are all human beings, worthy of dignity, opportunity, and love. As we undertake to nourish ourselves and each other, we cultivate the best of our own humanity as well as those around us and are then able to use it to promote the common good. For too long, a silent South allowed evil deeds to be done in their name. Across the globe, bystanders, by their silence and inactivity, enabled violent campaigns to destroy others. We can be better together than we were apart. We can be upstanders for a new, better world. We can build a beloved Mississippi, a beloved South, a beloved world.