History and Overview

The Welcome Table

History and Overview

In 2005, a group of citizens from diverse faith and social communities came together to explore what Mississippi might look like if it were a social justice state. What might be the conversations and actions we would undertake to make Mississippi a better place for everyone specifically through overcoming racism?

outdoor-photo-group-standingThe Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice, as the ad hoc group became known, decided to promote educational dialogue in communities that would lead toward achieving justice across the state. We believe that change comes through dialogue and relationship building, followed by effective community action.

In June 2006, the group kicked off a year of dialogue around the state with a gathering of over 300 citizens at the state capitol. Dialogue projects began in each of the four congressional districts over the next year, but one lesson emerged: there are a number of Mississippians who want to address issues of race and who understand the obstacles that race has placed before their communities’ development. Many, however, don’t know where to begin and are afraid to do the wrong thing and so they don’t act. So, while there is much interest in engaging in dialogue (and moving toward substantive action), there is a great need to build the capacity of citizens to engage in such dialogue effectively.

Thus, with support from the Fetzer Institute and the Kellogg Foundation, the Winter Institute initiated an era of dialogue on race, beginning with a pilot training program in fall 2008 and spring, 2009. The effort is a series of retreats and community development training offered to small groups of Mississippians who are dedicated to fostering positive change in their communities.

Using elements from a variety of traditions and models, including using stories to convey and exemplify universal truths, this process provides a safe space in which members of divided communities can learn to listen to and trust each other. WT facilitation teams create safe spaces for participants both within communities and in an intensive retreat session for key community leaders in which sensitive issues can be discussed and explored without fear of personal attack. Over time, the participants learn to create such environments on their own and to teach that practice to others. By sharing with community leaders how to listen effectively to each other and to build trust, the Welcome Table helps citizens engage in inclusive and meaningful conversations about the place they call home.

Beginning in January 2010, four Mississippi communities invited the Winter Institute to begin implementing the Welcome Table model. Local community leaders from Greenwood, McComb, Philadelphia and Oxford participated in initial meetings to begin building trust followed by a 2 1/2 day retreat of reflection and relationship building. Over the next two years local leaders began identifying and implementing actions plans around community issues, with support from the Winter Institute. With community guidance and leadership, institute staff refined and adapted the model for community needs and now has begun a new phase of work. Our hope is that community leaders will begin envision a common future together in the state and region and eventually identify issues to research, analyze, and advocate on behalf of as well as creating local programs and policies to address those issues. In 2011 and 2012, new communities invited the institute to begin the Welcome Table process: Indianola, Jackson, Meridian, New Orleans, Tupelo, and West Point.

We stand on the cusp of change, which could be positive or negative. Leadership will make the difference. At its core, the Welcome Table recognizes that we are all human beings, worthy of dignity, opportunity, and love. As we undertake to nourish ourselves and each other, we cultivate the best of our own humanity as well as those around us and are then able to use it to promote the common good. For too long, a silent South allowed evil deeds to be done in their name. Across the globe, bystanders, by their silence and inactivity, enabled violent campaigns to destroy others. We can be better together than we were apart. We can be upstanders for a new, better world. We can build a beloved Mississippi, a beloved South, a beloved world.

Phases of The Welcome Table

The community process involves three organic phases:

  1. Reflection. The process begins with reflection and relationship-building which include individual self-exploration, open and honest communication with others and the sharing of stories, all in a retreat setting, in the midst of safe, confidential space in order to build healthy relationships. It may include some single identity group work prior to a retreat.
  2. Education. The education phase begins near the end of the retreat and continues as participants return home. Once individuals have committed to exploring their own biases and boundaries and begun to develop effective relationships, it is important to begin learning from the experiences of others, especially concerning the ways in which race, racism, privilege and discrimination have shaped all of our lives. As we begin to understand the consequences of the systems we have inherited, we an begin to discern together initiatives specific to each community to redress inequities.
  3. Training. The third phase involves training and action. The training depends on the needs identified by each community; it might include advocacy training, fiscal management, grant writing, root cause analysis, asset mapping, coalition building and other skills. The ultimate goal is to equip residents in each community to accomplish the goals they identify together to improve their communities, as well as enabling them to share the elements of the process
    with others.

15 BY ’15

Our aim is to build a service infrastructure that allows us to partner with 15 Mississippi communities by 2015. Demand and word of mouth have put us ahead of schedule; let us know if your community needs The Welcome Table!

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