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Embracing Race: One Dinner Party at a Time

EmbRACE LA Dinner Party
EmbRACE LA Dinner Party | Lata Pandya | EmbRACE LA Dinner Party | Lata Pandya
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Imagine hosting a dinner party for a group of strangers who are encouraged to air their opinions about hot button issues like race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

That’s exactly what’s happening across Los Angeles this week thanks to an initiative conceived in July 2015 by Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

EmbRACE L.A. is a program designed to have what city officials have described as uncomfortable and honest conversations about race relations and inequities among L.A. residents.

Citywide conversations are occurring at 100 dinner parties held over four days in all 15 council districts. The South Los Angeles nonprofit organization Community Coalition and the City of L.A. are picking up the $500,000 tab for the dinners, which consist of up to 10 guests and feature meals prepared by local chefs.

The initiative is the first of its kind in the nation, according to Wesson’s office.

From a pool of 2,000 applicants, half were randomly picked to participate in the dinners, either as guests or hosts. The creators of EmbRACE L.A. believe the dinner table is one of the best places to have what can be uncomfortable discussions about racism, diversity and changing inequities among residents. Organizers guide the conversations throughout the evening.

Hogan Lee, who lives in Century City and attended a dinner party on Monday in Leimert Park said the experience was "refreshing" and "enlightening."

"I didn’t know what to expect," Lee said, adding that it was "awesome" to meet people he wouldn't otherwise meet.

Over plates of Moroccan chicken and spiced chickpeas, Lee was one of seven strangers who sat around hosts Shannon Shue and Mira Joleigh’s kitchen table and exchanged personal experiences of racism, white privilege and inequity.

"Race is very difficult and it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have," said Lance Macniven, a 29-year-old African American transportation planner.

"But it’s a conversation we have to have," responded Ansley Jean-Jacques, a Community Coalition organizer who was leading the dinner conversation.

Macniven spoke of racially motivated encounters he’s had while living in Southern California, including the times he was treated differently when he wore a business suit versus a hoodie sweater.

"It’s a weight that you carry,” Macniven said. “You are always worried about how other people perceive you."

The diversity of the Leimert Park group -- two African Americans, two Asian Americans, a gay couple and a Jewish woman -- was purposeful. Organizers created a diverse guest list to encourage an exchange of personal stories on ethnicity, religion or anywhere else the conversation goes.

While some of the dinner parties were ethnically diverse, they weren't necessarily politically diverse. That’s something EmbRACE L.A. organizers acknowledge and plan to address in the next round of dinner parties.

"It would be interesting to do some different outreach to try and get some different voices," said Anthony Foster, a Community Coalition organizer who was leading a dinner party in Downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night. "So folks who are clearly conservative and progressive can have a conversation."

Co-host Joleigh has had frank dialogue about race and racism with her close circle of friends but never among strangers. She didn’t know what to expect when she and her wife volunteered to be hosts.

"I love the idea of bringing this concept to our communities,” said Joleigh. “It’s been very special."

The dinner party series is happening in a time when some hate crimes are on the rise.

In 2016, there was a 67 percent increase in hate crimes with evidence of white supremacist ideology, according to the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. In the two months after the 2016 election, there was a 9 percent rise in hate crimes. The number of gender-based crimes also increased from 22 to 39 that year.

"Major cities across the country, including the city of Los Angeles, have already reported increases in hate crime during the first half of 2017," said LACCHR Director Robin Toma, who made the statement last November when the report was released.

That is all the more reason to have small, intimate conversations about the issues that have the potential to rip apart communities, according to backers of EmbRACE L.A.

There are three more nights of dinners this week. Another series of dinner parties are being planned for the fall.

Lata Pandya and Wess Woods contributed to this reporting.

Video edited by Portia Baudisch.

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