Catalyst Dinners

Shannon Ozene, left, hosted a Catalyst Dinner on Thursday at her business, The Black Element.

On Thursday, Sarah Berthelot was the guest speaker at the Acadiana Women’s Network luncheon, sponsored by One Acadiana.

Berthelot is president and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Association of United Ways.

I attend a fair amount of networking events as part of my job, and it’s not always my favorite part. It might surprise people to know how uncomfortable such events make me. I’m not good at making small talk; I’m much more comfortable hiding behind written words. I even prefer public speaking because there’s a distance between you and the audience, and I can hide behind that.

Berthelot discussed her leadership style and the tactics she uses to build consensus. She talked about finding clarity in your mission and the qualities of a servant leader. As a woman, she said, “sometimes you have to be able to play poker when you need to. And cry on the way home.”

She also shared a quote she keeps in her office, one that she reflects on daily: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

This is a quote I also love and that I try to live by. I’ve experienced the most growth — personal and professional — during times when I forced myself out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have experienced Berthelot’s powerful and moving message, for example, if I hadn’t forced myself to attend an event I knew would make me uncomfortable.

Catalyst dinners

Being uncomfortable has been sort of a theme in Acadiana over the past week.

Between March 10 and 16, a series of 25 dinners have been held by various people in the community. A product of Lafayette's Conversation Starters, they’re called catalyst dinners and the purpose is to engage the 10 to 12 invited guests in meaningful cross-racial conversation.

Founded by Ashley Mudd, Elsa Dimitriadis and Skyra Rideaux, Conversation Starters began in 2017 with a monthly series of presentations followed by conversation designed to educate and promote ongoing, honest communication between people of different races.

The catalyst dinners were funded during the 24 Hour Citizen Project in 2018 and will culminate in a huge dinner March 24. On that day, Jefferson Street will be closed and all 250 participants in the catalyst dinners will gather and break bread at what is being billed as The Longest Table.

“We know this will not create immediate solutions," said Elsa Dimitriadis, one of the co-creators. "Instead, we strive to create authentic human connection and thereby ‘move people along the continuum from uninformed to informed, from informed to concerned, and from concerned to active’.”  

Tough topics

Adam Daigle, the Acadiana Advocate’s business editor, attended a catalyst dinner last week. He said the dinner’s organizers held true to the concept of tackling tough topics, including implicit bias in our personal lives and in the media.

Frank discussions about race are difficult, especially given the decline in civil discourse in this country. I have found that Lafayette, in particular, has a difficult time addressing racial issues head on. It’s uncomfortable, especially for a culture that prides itself on its generosity and welcoming nature.

Shannon Ozene hosted a dinner Thursday at her business, The Black Element.

“I really just wanted to get out of my comfort zone and do something different,” she said. “In recent years, I’ve pulled away from some community stuff to sort of do my own thing and this sounded like a great way to reconnect.”

Ozene’s guests were racially diverse. They also ranged in age from 22 to 69.

“We had some good conversations," Ozene said. "It was good to hear how different generations experience racism."

She was especially moved by the story of 69-year old Barbara Landor, who attended Mt. Carmel School as a child. 

"She was one of only four black students at the time," Ozene said. "And she wasn't invited to her school reunion until 52 years had passed."

Ozene, who graduated from Lafayette High School, had just never thought about what that must have felt like.

And that's the beauty of stepping outside your comfort zone and talking to people who are different from you. You learn things you never would have learned otherwise; you have a better understanding of your neighbors.

And when we understand people, we are less afraid of them. And more willing to work together with them to improve our community.

Part of our mission as a local newspaper is to serve and reflect our community — all segments of our community.

I'm going to continue to look for ways to get outside my comfort zone and get to know others in the community, even if the conversations are uncomfortable.

What can you do to get outside your comfort zone?

There will be room for members of the public at the free Longest Table dinner, but you must reserve a spot at www.cslongesttable.eventbrite.com.

Kristin Askelson is managing editor of The Acadiana Advocate. She can be reached at kaskelson@theadvocate.com or 337-349-1145.

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Follow Kristin Askelson on Twitter, @kaskelson.