Diversity Dinners–A Cross-Cultural Institution

On Thursday, April 14th, my sister Nora and I attended a wonderful event called Diversity Dinners.  Diversity Dinners began more than a decade ago in the South Suburbs of Chicago.   Since then, close to 15,000 people from over 40 communities have shared dinner at host homes.   Diversity Dinners promote cross-cultural communication and understanding for better, stronger communities.

Through the years, Diversity Dinners has helped break down barriers that separate people and build better relationships among neighbors and communities. Many participants, young and old, have gained mutual respect and forged lasting friendships. Many people look forward each year to meeting old friends and making new acquaintances.

My sister and I found out about Diversity Dinners through a mailer that came to our house.   She, my brother and I live in the house my parents lived in, and the mailer was addressed to my mother, who had passed away years ago.    My sister opened it up, and she remembered having a conversation with my mother about what a wonderful time she had at the event.   My mother had always been a positive force for encouraging cross-cultural communication and my sister decided that she wanted to honor her by attending the event herself.   She asked me if I wanted to attend as well, and I agreed.

There were about a dozen of us.   As far as race is concerned, we were about half white, half African-American, and one of the three college-age students were mixed race.    We were representatives of Christian and Jewish religious backgrounds, and we ranged from college age to retirement age.    The dinner itself was catered, and after sharing our meal together, we started our conversation, which was directed by the host couple.

The two questions were:   how does diversity strengthen our community?    The surprising answer we got from many people was that by embracing diversity, it allows us to see what we have in common.    This, in turn, helps us to cooperate in terms of helping our communities weather the economic storms that are increasing in frequency and severity as our middle class is under siege.    Compared to when I was in college age, millennials who are of college age face an age of diminishing expectations rather than expanding ones, and the real possibility of the creation of a new form of indentured servitude.

Celebrating diversity goes beyond mere tolerance.   Tolerance is a passive, or sometimes even, passive-aggressive posture towards those who are different.   The embracing of diversity VALUES those same differences and even seeks them out, like we all did when we signed up for the Diversity Dinner.

The second question was:   what specific actions do we recommend people take in order to promote the celebration of diversity in the NEXT generation, as represented by our three college age students.   My answer is Toastmasters, which accepts people of diverse backgrounds who all have one thing in common, that is, the desire to improve their speaking and leadership abilities.

As an example of how this promotes diversity, Charles Brooks, an African-American who was the District Governor about a dozen years ago, proposed creating “seed” clubs in areas that had been hitherto underserved:   the South side of Chicago.    He contended that Toastmasters had been seen as a suburban phenomenon by the African-American community, and did not see how it had anything to offer them because there were no clubs in their neighborhoods.

So Charles got to work creating 5 seed clubs in neighborhoods like Englewood that were considered “rough” neighborhoods.    Now, more than a dozen years later, some of these clubs are the stars, not just of their neighborhoods, but of the entire Division which they are in, like the Wrightwood-Ashburn Overcomers, or WAO, club, which has consistently produced champion speakers and leaders who have gone on to be the real powerhouses of the Division and indeed, of the District itself.

My goal in this next year is to see how we can serve, not just the African-American community in Chicago, but the next largest minority group, Hispanic-Americans.    Our goal at Toastmasters should be:

We don’t care what color your skin is; we only care about the color of your ambition!


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