Intentional Social Interaction in the News
Today is February 21st, 2017 and tonight is the fourth IZI that Marnita’s Table is hosting with the Department of Employment and Economic Development! After three successful IZIs in Bemidji, Worthington and St. Cloud, MN we are excited to host our fourth conversation in Mankato about diversity in the workforce with DEED, Workforce Leadership Teams and community members all over the state of Minnesota.
So far we have seen Intentional Social Interaction travel across Minnesota impacting one community after another. Young people have become leaders in 3 hours, employers connected with community partners across difference and new and old community members creating alliances with one another over great food.
Thank you to everyone that has come so far! We’ll keep you updated as move across the state!
On February 4, 2016, members of the African community in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center were brought together to express their opinions on what themes and topics they were interested in talking about within the African community related to healing, wellness, and the African Diaspora. They also talked about what it looks like to be inclusive of the entire African Diaspora, including children, youth and senior citizens. After this gathering, many felt that the community needed more time to plan an event together. With this in mind, the Marnita’s Table team added one more planning convening to give the community time to plan.
On April 14th, 2016 the community gathered once again. With catering by the Red Sea and Akwaaba African Market, guests were nourished by good food and positive conversation. Everyone in the room was able to have their voices heard – from young to old.
Throughout the evening, children could be heard laughing, drumming, and making new friends. The night ended with Circle Share-in where every single guest, including children, told everyone what they were grateful for. Some shared gratitude for coming together in community, while others said they were grateful for life itself. The night ended with conversation, new relationships and excitement about the future of the community.
On Friday, April 1st CentraCare-Long Prairie and Long Prairie/Grey Eagle High School came together with Marnita’s Table to host a Career Fair for high school students and community members interested in a new or future career. Community members, educators, families, and representatives from many different careers came to make new connections and share knowledge about new careers.
Throughout the evening, those looking to do more research on careers received handed a passport that categorized all careers using colors. The different categories were along the lines of STEM, Arts, Human Services, Business/Management, and Agriculture.
Each student or community member interested in these categories were encouraged to not only grab related materials, but to make a connection with someone interested in the same field/s. A resource wall was available for students seeking materials about every career represented at the event.
The night came to close with Circle Share-in, laughs and hugs, and raffle prizes for students who completed their passports.
On March 30-31, 2016 St. Thomas University hosted their annual Diversity and Inclusion conference. Guests were local and global leaders on diversity and inclusion practices in the workplace and society as a whole. Celebrating it’s 28th year, Marnita’s Table was invited as a guest and speaker for the conference. Marnita Schroedl, CEO of Marnita’s Table, spoke on taking risks and trusting in oneself during the opening performance. Her speech was honest and powerful as it explained how “we live in a capitalistic society… what we value we pay for” and how to not undermine your experience and worth.
During the conference speakers from all over the world gave insight on how to create a more inclusive environment for all and how to reach out to those who have been historically left out of organizations. Marnita’s Table held a session on Intentional Social Interaction and it’s use in not only the community, but in business as well.
Open to all but with an emphasis on North side residents, the space was held by Marnita’s Table with support from the Catalyst Initiative of the George Family Foundation and in collaboration with community allies MADDADs, Robert J. Jones Urban Research Outreach Center of the University of Minnesota and Kwanzaa Community Church.
Guests selected from three sessions that day. Each took a different approach to health and wellness practices. A Himalayan Yoga session led by James Ford brought peace and relief to those who participated. A Healing Drums lesson taught by Samba Fall of the Multicultural Kids Network was a favorite amongst the small children. Lessons from the Elements guided by Ras Sol focused on healing crystals and the medicinal elements that they possess. In each session both children and adults learned both preventative and restorative practices to better their health.
Throughout the day therapists and holistic healers were available for guests. Those who left this room were encouraged to do an exercise and write down something they needed to release out of their bodies and into the world. This practice is called “Let it go” where a person writes down something that has been weighing heavy on their mind, body, spirit. Once recorded, it is placed in a basket as a way to symbolize that you have “let it go” from your body. After the event was over the team at Marnita’s Table held a ceremony, burning each and every paper without reading the content. Using sage, we performed a blessing the contents of the basket before lighting the notes and releasing them.
Two additional rooms were used specifically as a quiet space and also loud space that could remain open and be a source of release. Most of the children found the loud room to be a source of refuge. Drawing on the walls, young people found expression through art. What we had intended to be a release space mostly designed for more expressive individuals became a safe space for children and collaborative creativity.
After each session ended guests returned to the main community room. A community open mic allowed everyone who wanted the opportunity to express themselves the option to do so. Displaying talents of all sorts, young girls found their friends and sang a favorite song, while more seasoned artists also found their way to the stage with rehearsed material that suited the themes of the day. Comedians and poets were also among the list of those who performed. It was a chance for guests to tell their story and express themselves, in a personal and unfiltered way.
Shortly before the open mic ended guests gathered into Circle Share-In and each person turned to their right to tell their neighbor something they have always wanted to hear about themselves.
Breaking Bread and the delicious feast they provided made the large school space feel like home. New friendships were made and old friends reconnected in a way that most would at a family gathering. The day was filled with joy and appreciation for community.
On February 23, 2016, the Catalyst Initiative hosted its first convening of all seed grantees from 2015. This was a chance for our community partners to share lessons learned and begin to explore how their networks can be enhanced and communities of practice built.
Each organization was invited to bring up to four representatives. We invited each group to share a five-minute presentation on their project and lessons learned to date. The stories were compelling, inspiring and creative examples of the innate power to heal that resides in each of us.
Throughout the day a few seed grantee healers led sessions. Samba Fall taught us about the unique elements of African Healing Drums and gave personal examples of how they have dramatically improved the health of his own daughter.
Dr. Joi Lewis led a session exploring topics such as radical self care and what it really means to be present. Dr. Lewis is a coach and consultant for those searching for authentic connection with themselves.
The day was filled with networking and educating one another on achievements and challenges faced. Themes that wound through every organization’s story included the surmounting of obstacles and successes in integrative, spiritual and cultural practices for health and wellbeing.
Spend a few hours with Marnita Schroedl, and you’ll start thinking that if we could get five million people into her Minneapolis home, the state soon wouldn’t have a problem left to solve.
Schroedl and her husband, Carl Goldstein, run an organization — Marnita’s Table — that connects the powerless to the powerful through the first thing they have in common: food. It prompted reader Melissa Garrity to suggest her for News Cut’s You Should Meet series:
Ah Marnita! She is such a wonderful person. She is a connector. She has an art of bringing people of diverse backgrounds together to connect. Something, I think we can do more often. She has a huge heart and has always brought people together at her table….she then started a non-profit organization (along with her husband Carl Goldstein), called…Marnita’s Table (see marnitastable.org). She focuses on starting conversations to bring people together from diverse backgrounds: culturally, financially, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. She feels if we can bring everyone to the table, we can accomplish something.
Schroedl grew up as a foster child in an all-white town in the Pacific Northwest. “I never really quite fit,” she said. “I struggled a lot in high school; I attempted suicide four times.”
She left home when she was 16 with $5 in her pocket.
“When I left home I made this vow: Nobody would ever feel unwelcome. As long as I had a roof over my head, that anybody who came to my door, that I would make everyone feel welcome in my home,” she said.
She worked in Los Angeles for a time and went back to college with the idea of getting into public relations. But a deeper sense of justice was tugging at her.
“I went to community college for two years and transferred into UCLA as an honor student,” she said. “I got all the way to midyear in my senior year. Something happened in the middle of a ‘skepticism and rationality’ seminar. It was one of these… ‘do I exist?’ discussions. I may not exist, but in my non-existence there are people who are literally homeless and starving and need help. I got up and walked out.”
With a career in corporate communications established in California, she moved to Minnesota in the ’90s. But her then-husband left her and the company she worked for went bankrupt.
“I’ve had one of those weird lives,” she quipped. “I basically sat down and revisioned myself.”
A dozen or so years ago, she met journalist Carl Goldstein, and turned her attention to doing something that makes a difference. Marnita’s Table was eventually born, as described on her organization’s website:
Our model, Intentional Social Interaction, is designed to catalyze enduring relationships between disparate populations and the organizations that serve them. In just six years we have become recognized and respected for our ability to bridge cultural differences and bring people of all ages, ethnicities and background together for the common good. Instead of being a “think tank,” we are a “connect & then do tank.”
It started when a non-profit, Social Venture Partners, was interested in engaging more people of color in philanthropy and asked her to put together an event. “So I invented something called the ‘dinner and dialogue’ and they gave us a small grant.”
Quickly, she says, she knew she was onto something. Marnita’s Table events — simply called, “a table” — are organized around a theme — homelessness, education, HIV, for example. People are allowed to invite anyone they want, sometimes to her home. “No less than 50 percent of the people have to be considered “the minority” — non decision-making and non-resource holding, she said. (See “Eating at the Table of Knowledge” for more information)
The meal is a big part of it. So are cards with questions on them spread around the table. “It’s not designed to talk about your problems,” she said. “It’s designed to talk about what you have in common. So you’re feeling pretty good; you have a nice glass of wine, there’s some good food. The food and the question on the table are leading it. There’s no facilitator.”
The smallest group at her table was was 12. The largest has been 700. Up to 150 have been in her home at once.
“Most of our things are passive,” she said. “You walk in and someone in the room will give you wisdom. Everyone here is viewed as an expert.”
Food, she says, is the great equalizer that allows people to talk about something they have in common. It’s what happens after that which solves problems.
“On November 5th, a young man came up to me and walked up with this in his hands,” she says, holding a very small baking pan with a cookie. “(He said), ‘You don’t know me. I came to your table three years ago, and what you didn’t know is I was homeless and I met someone in your living room. He gave me a job the next day. He knew I was homeless so he let me live in my car. He didn’t mind that I didn’t have a permanent address. I saved enough that I now have a kitchen and an efficiency apartment. Because I was at the table, I now have a kitchen.’”
During a table, people will leave contributions in envelopes. Schroedl keeps the notes attached to a few dollar bills. “‘Forgive us that it’s not more,’” she says, reading one. “‘If people only knew.’” She pauses and then shakes her head saying, “Forgive us for being poor.”
Schroedl says many of her “tables” take place in the 6th Congressional District. “They have all sorts of racial issues,” she said. “It’s a very diverse community in St. Cloud now. Most of those people come from conservative evangelical churches; they’re bringing them in as war refugees.”
In February, St Cloud School District Superintendent Bruce Watkins hosted a table with 90 community members to consider ways to improve the schools, a program called “Together We Succeed.”
She described a typical moment in the life of a table:
“There was a Somali man, and a man who (on a form participants fill out) said his passion is ‘maintaining a non-Socialistic, free society that is not taxed in excess.’ This guy and this guy aren’t in the same room very often. They both had 9th graders so they were talking about what educational success looks like to them. The Somali man said both his daughters were gang raped at a war refugee camp and so the definition of success to him is ‘when both of my daughters sleep through the night and they come home from school smiling.’ This other man had a 9th grade daughter, too, and he leaned in and touched the other man’s hand. And they put their heads together and they started talking. It’s about that human relationship and seeing each other as something other than their politics.”
But in this case, the program didn’t work out. The summer state shutdown scuttled it. Still, you can’t defund a human connection.
There are many more success stories, however. Schroedl hosts tables for students, who, she said, change their behaviors because of them. One young woman, for example, said she was getting D’s and F’s until she went to one of Schroedl’s dinners. Sometime later, she returned with a report card. “‘What you don’t know is I went back to class with a goal,’” she recalls the woman saying . “At the end of her quarter, she was getting B’s. She said the dinner and conversation “‘was the very first time anyone looked me in the eye and treated me as if I had value. I started behaving as if I had value.’” She’s in college now. She also works for Schroedl.
“It’s about knowing that all of us need a place. We need to know that we’re safe, that even if mom and dad get a divorce and that we don’t have money that we’re going to be connected, that we matter, that we have value. And that’s the number one thing I hear from the young people who come to the table: We mattered,” she said.
Each summer, Schroedl and Goldstein host an “I Have a Dream Graduation Party.” In 2008, a graduating senior invited her grandfather, a 78-year-old from Otter Tail County who “was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of mixed-ethnic romantic relationships.”
“There was food everywhere and we took all the furniture from the main floor of our house and put carpets on the front yard. We made a living room and dining room on the front yard so everyone could dance,” Schroedl recalled.
“Fifteen minutes after he came, he was literally bouncing saying, ‘This was the best party I’ve been to in my life.’ Fifteen minutes later he said, ‘I’ve never been with this many people of color before in my life. I always thought we had nothing in common, but it’s just that we’ve never talked before.’”
“Fifteen minutes after that he came up to me and said, ‘I live in Otter Tail County and the white people don’t talk to the immigrants and the immigrants don’t talk to the white people. I always thought it was because they were just in my community taking things, but I’m getting it’s because we don’t have a connection.’”
“The fourth time he comes back to me and says, ‘I’ve been talking to my wife; we want you to come to Otter Tail county and do a table.’”
“You know your living room will be half-filled with immigrants and people of color?” Schroedl said.
“He looked at me and said, ‘My community is dying. We can’t get anything done. This looks like it could really help my community.’”
Six months later, she said, the granddaughter brought a boyfriend home.
“He was Mexican-American,” Schroedl said. “And Grandpa showed up unexpectedly.” They both got along great, she said.
“‘What happened?’” Schroedl says the granddaughter asked him.
“‘You took me to that thing six months ago. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.’”
All because of a vow made by a 16-year-old girl who didn’t fit in.
Marnita's Table is a 501(c)3. Our eleven-year old organization seeks to close gaps across difference through making Intentional Social Interaction the new pattern for society where people of color, the disenfranchised, the poor, the unheard, the fragile, the GLBT and anyone who is normally left out of community decision making are automatically included and valued at the policy-making and resource-sharing table.