The most consistent conclusion reached by participants and officials of Welcome Table New Orleans seems to be exactly why the program exists in the first place: Race is a difficult thing to talk about, but we have to try.
At the Mahalia Jackson Theatre this morning, June 24, representatives from three different Welcome Table New Orleans groups gathered to present their ongoing work on racial reconciliation to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse, representatives from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Urban League of Greater New Orleans and about 200 members of the general public.
Welcome Table New Orleans is a division of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, a program based out of the University of Mississippi and named for Mississippi's former governor that uses open dialogue, writing and thought exercises to get people talking about one of the most important issues facing the nation. As a rule, the Winter Institute does not go anywhere it's not invited - an attempt to prevent itself from imposing itself onto communities who aren't ready for it - but in 2004, Landrieu, then Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, reached out.
The City of New Orleans is the only city in the country that has reached out to work with the Winter Institute.
A successful visit to the Institute was followed by Hurricane Katrina is 2005. Last year, the Institute started work in New Orleans, with an initial 300 New Orleanians signing up to take part, a number that gradually dwindled to 100 committed volunteers.
It was free to take part in the institute, and the only criteria was that participants live in New Orleans.
The three circles represented different neighborhoods in the city: Algiers, Central City and St. Roch. After each group outlined a project it's spent the last few months conceptualizing, Nola.com-Times Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry interviewed members onstage about what the experience was like to open up about race.
"I didn't really have a clear expectation," said Carol Carter, a representative of the Algiers circle. "I know I came in very cynical and the reason I started was because I found myself in a very cynical, pessimistic conversation with a few other people about what a white dude from Mississippi could do for racial reconciliation in our city...It was a very difficult process. I expected to be frustrated, and I was. I was expecting to be angry, and I was. And a lot of times I was exhausted and ready to let it go. But it challenged me. It changed, it transcended the way I thought about myself and my perceptions of race and how I saw other people."
Sitting next to Carter was a white woman named Carol Osborne (or, as she referred to herself, "the other Carol"). Osborne grew up "Jewish in Catholic New Orleans," and being a different kind of minority, she assumed she had an understanding of the nuances and challenges of race. "I came into the circle thinking...'I got this,' she said. "No, I didn't. I had miles to go in my learning experience. And the people in this circle, through our frustrations, our excitement and our explanations, helped me."
In the St. Roch circle, one participant said that one of the most enlightening moments of the program was when a fellow participant, an African-American, mentioned that he'd been incarcerated for drug-related activities. Upon hearing this, another participant, a white woman, told the group that she'd been involved in more severe drug-related activities but despite multiple arrests, had never been incarcerated. The tension between these two people, and the white privilege that tension embodied, helped spark a dialogue among the group.
At the very end of his last interview, DeBerry asked participants to indicate, with a show of hands, whether they would do the program over again. Every single person on stage raised her hand.
The projects each group will embark on, all centered around racial reconciliation, received seed funding from the Kellogg Foundation, which helped fund the institute. Though the session is over and the city is inviting a new batch of participants to sign up, these groups will move forward independently to make their projects a reality.
The Algiers circle proposed a 12-month project for area youth to interview Algiers elders about the racial history of the neighborhood, then represent the experience through a mural project to be completed under the guidance of Exhibit Be artist Brandin Odums. The Central City circle proposed putting markers of notable community leaders and role models around the neighborhood, while the St. Roch circle proposed four intimate conversations and story circles where residents can communicate openly and share with one another. The circle wants to then share the stories that come out of those conversations throughout the neighborhood and city.
Before the circles presented, Landrieu spoke about the importance of racial reconciliation, explaining that the first step forward was acknowledging that "something bad has happened." He did just that, by delivering a formal apology for slavery and New Orleans' role in perpetuating the slave trade.
"On this day," said Landrieu, "let me, as the chief executive officer of this government, in this city, that at one moment in history sold more slaves into slavery than anywhere else in America, apologize for this country's history and legacy of slavery."
As an example of how difficult a topic race is, within seconds of tweeting that quote from the Gambit Twitter handle, one follower responded with a sarcastic comment about Landrieu's alleged attempt at eradicating white guilt, while minutes after that, an African-American Welcome Table participant took time on stage to thank the mayor for the apology, saying that it "meant the world to me."
Dr. Susan Glisson, the director of the Winter Institute, articulated the very tension between those two responses: "This is difficult, often painful and frustrating work," she said. "It is also immensely inspiring and rewarding. Our culture doesn't teach us how to deal with difficult issues very well. It demands debate and polarization, sound bites and vitriol."