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Check Out Elizabeth Falco’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Elizabeth Falco. 

Hi Elizabeth, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
Ricardo Reinoso’s vision for 2020 was to plan and launch Cleveland Dinners, a relaxed monthly gathering of diverse people to share a meal and have conversations about race and equity. The model has been used in other cities and been successful in bringing people together in Chicago for decades. In the early days of 2020 Reinoso’s plan was to have dinners around the city and Cleveland suburbs, groups of eight to 10 hosted at people’s homes, but the coronavirus pandemic put that plan on hold. 

After seeing the success of the Decatur Dinners—a 1,200-person conversation about race that took place over a shared meal in 120 locations across Decatur, Georgia—Reinoso knew he had the perfect pedigree to bring a similar initiative to Cleveland. Held in August 2019, the timing coincided with Reinoso’s participation in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program, which empowers emerging civic leaders by requiring them to helm a local project aimed at positive change. 

Like the Decatur Dinners, Cleveland Dinners will utilize the “Chicago Dinners” model, which was introduced by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago back in 1995 and reimagined as On the Table in 2014 (inspiring Cleveland Foundation’s Common Ground initiative). With thousands of participants to date, the model centers on bringing a wide variety of local residents and leaders to discuss race and racism. 

Then nationwide unrest, protests, and riots in Cleveland following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police proved to Reinoso and his team the time for quality conversations about tough issues is now. They moved the dinners online to Zoom. 

The Cleveland Dinners provides a space for people to unite and share stories through facilitated conversations to confront racism and build equitable communities. Due to the pandemic, the dinner events are hosted online, but the group plans to expand their programming to include live, in-person dinners. Each dinner follows a similar format where guests are welcomed to the virtual table with live music. The main performance piece, a video, play, Ted Talk, podcast episode, or book chapter, unites the guests in a shared artistic experience, meant to create space for, an invite in vulnerable conversation. After the performances, guests are welcomed into diverse breakout rooms where trained facilitators engage them in dialogue around the event’s topic. The breakout conversations are meant to be the ‘main course’ or the true meat and potatoes of the dinner. In these spaces, guests are invited to share personal stories from lived experiences and work collectively to heal the wounds of racism. After the breakout conversations, guests are invited back to the main room for a dessert piece, often a spoken word performance by an artist of color. 

The results have been phenomenal, Reinoso said, adding that he has seen participants from all over the U.S. Within the breakout rooms, facilitators have reported impactful, insightful, and inclusive conversations, during which all participants share at least one personal experience. 

During Cleveland Dinners’ virtual feedback sessions, a number of participants have shared their newfound awareness about experiences that people of color face. Many have expressed their intent to apply this knowledge in the future, whether it be by attending a protest or sharing their knowledge with family and friends. 

The impact of the meals isn’t limited to Northeast Ohio, either. So inspired was one woman, she replicated this style of discussion in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. 

When asked how members of the community can get involved with Cleveland Dinners, the team unanimously agreed that the most advantageous method of connecting with the organization was through registering for a dinner. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
The pandemic certainly proved to be an initial challenge as the dinners were supposed to take place in person. Though we had to shift to a virtual dinner platform, that has enabled us to reach more people, and we now welcome people from across the country and beyond, to our virtual table. 

We are a startup non-profit so we’ve faced a number of challenges. We had to establish the core design team – folks who were willing to support the mission and give their time without compensation. We applied for our 501c3 charter and in the process established our board of directors. Each month we have a different theme/topic and bring new musical guests, artists, and poets to our table. Fundraising is also an important component of making this project sustainable. Our dinners are free and open to the public, so we need to fundraise in order to compensate our talented artists for their time. 

Each month we bring new talent to the table so with each monthly theme we have a different musical guest and performance artist. Building our network of artistic talent has been slow and steady and we’re working to expand our network of artists. 

Spreading the word about our work has been a challenge. We have a committed group of guests who attend every month, but we’re always working to find new ways to share our message and bring more people to the ‘table’ in conversation about race and equity. 

As with any startup, we have a limited number of resources to work with, especially considering the team is 100% volunteers. Implementing our resources in a way that has the greatest impact on our overall mission has been a challenge. We want to do it all and reach as many people as possible! 

What are your plans for the future?
Our vision is to expand our dinner offerings to host in-person dinners in Cleveland. We plan to keep the virtual offering as we’re able to bring folks from across the country together in conversation, but we’re ultimately looking to host live dinners where people can break bread in person. 

We use the arts to provide a shared experience for our guests which ultimately invites authenticity and vulnerability in the breakout room conversations. We’re working to partner with a local theater company so that we can provide guests with live performances. We’re also working to partner with organizations in Cleveland and around the country who are committed to building equitable and anti-racist communities. 

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