Putting race relations ‘On the Table’

All over Philadelphia on Tuesday, local residents joined with community organizers, members of nonprofit groups, volunteers and others to share a meal and discuss some of the biggest questions facing the city today.

The events – mostly lunch meetings, along with several breakfast and after-hours events – were all part of On the Table Philly, an initiative of the Philadelphia Foundation and the Knight Foundation, aimed at bringing people together to discuss the issues that face their communities.

A wide variety of topics was discussed at lunch spots throughout the city, but at Reading Terminal Market, attendees attempted to tackle an issue that has beguiled many for decades – race relations.

“This is not about what we want to get from today. It’s about what we can start today,” said Eric Nzerbie, organizer of the lunch meeting and publisher of Funtimes magazine, a publication that caters to African immigrants in Philadelphia.

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Nzerbie, who originally began publishing his magazine in Monrovia, Liberia, said that in a city like Philadelphia, where there are many people from a diverse array of backgrounds, traditions and religions, in order to come together as a community, residents need to have conversations like the one that arose at Reading Terminal Market.

“We are starting to have this conversation… I’m not looking for a solution. It’s just that we need to have this conversation,” he said. “It’s all about building bridges.”

It was Philadelphia’s first time hosting these On the Table events, which were held throughout the city and covered topics like mental health, community and education, LGBTQ issues and economic development. They’ve previously taken place in cities like Chicago and Lexington, Kentucky.

During the meal, attendees at Reading Terminal Market talked about the role of race in the community and the different relationships that individuals have with law enforcement depending on their race, and they tossed around ways that people from different backgrounds and cultures might be able to find common ground.

Phoebe Coles, CEO of Community Marketing Concepts, an organizer of the meeting at the market, said that she wanted the day’s conversation to be more than just a place for people to air grievances over race.

Instead, she was hoping those in attendance could help find common ground.

“How do we stop looking at this as a glass half full?” she asked everyone at the event. “How do we stop looking at the things we don’t have?”

To Jenavia Weaver, COO of Rhythm and Rhyme Edutainment Genius Productions, one of the best tools to bring people together, she said, was music. Weaver said that through the shared love of music, people of all colors, backgrounds and religions can come together.

“I live in Philadelphia, and it’s important to be in any conversation that’s going to address race,” she said. “This is reality. We can’t erase history. But, what we can do, is talk about it.”

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Eric Edi, president and COO of Africom, a group that advocates for African and Caribbean immigrants in America, said that the best part of On the Table’s discussion on race relations might simply have been the fact that they were able to have the conversation at all.

“This is not an easy conversation, it’s a very difficult topic,” Edi said. “It’s good to be at a table with people I don’t know.”

Overall, Nzerbie said that he felt the day was a success as it brought many people with different viewpoints together to share a meal.

It’s something, he said, that society could use more of, as the current political climate can drive people apart.

“It doesn’t matter what boat you used to come to America,” he said. “We are all in the same boat now, and we’ve got to make sure to keep it afloat.” 

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