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The Longest Table: Lafayette community discussing race, inequity over a meal

Posted at 10:31 PM, Mar 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-25 15:34:51-04

Stepping outside of your comfort zone and having conversations about inequality from different perspectives: that’s the goal of one Lafayette organization.

Throughout the month, Conversation Starters hosted a series of what they called Catalyst Dinners aimed at holding cross-racial dialogue.

On Sunday, more than 200 people, from different ages, races and religions, gathered downtown for their “Longest Table” event, where small conversations stemmed all along the 400 ft. table.

“We live in St. Martinville and we noticed last year was the first year they had one prom instead of a black prom and a white prom,” said Roxeanne Formeller.

She and her husband, Michael who have been married for three years, hosted a Catalyst Dinner a few weeks ago. As a bi-racial couple, they say having these types of conversations outside of their own home can sometimes be tough.

“But it’s heartwarming when I look around this table and see how many other people are taking the lead and having these conversations and making the changes that need to be made,” she said.

Organizers hope by sharing concerns and experiences over a meal, a solution or better understanding can be made and eventually spread past their long table.

“When you get to know people who don’t look like you, you really realize there’s more commonalities than not. And in order for us to really decide what we want to do to make things better, we have to start having the conversations and get comfortable being uncomfortable,” said co-founder of Conversation Starters, Elsa Demitriadis.

“If you’re not intentional about maintaining this change then people will just revert back to their old behaviors, to what makes them comfortable. it takes really intentional efforts like these,” said another participant, Dr. Cary Winters, a communications professor at UL.

She said there is always something to be learned and taught by different people, like the strangers she sat down with on Sunday.

“So how do I teach people how to manage their discomfort and to be aware of what they’re bringing to the conversation, so they can be open to receive what other people are bringing to the conversation, without it being about them being defensive,” said Winters.

“Defensive people don’t learn anything, if you’re defensive, then that’s it, you shut down,” added Michael Formeller.

“How do I talk about it in a way that makes a point about how deep this goes and keep the conversation open,” replied his wife, Roxeanne.

“As soon as someone says something or does something that may not even be a big deal, everybody is ready to like jump on them and cancel them. That’s not the good way to go about it,” said another woman in the group, Monique Morton Derousselle.

“If ultimately the goal is to bring people in the community and get people to have the conversation and have a deeper understanding, then how do we call people in and say ‘alright hey it’s okay to get it wrong’ and how do we talk about it instead of alienating them,” Winters said.