It’s no coincidence that activist Mary Dadone calls Coming to the Table meetings a “12-step program” for racial reconciliation.
Jane Carrigan, a co-founder of the Annapolis chapter, has shared with the group her recollection of the white supervisor at her first summer job complaining about having to work with her because she was black. Carrigan kept showing up. Eventually, he conceded he had been wrong about her.
“I know I changed that man,” said the retired lawyer.
Chapter co-founder Rusty Vaughan, a 77-year-old white businessman, has told the group how miffed he felt when black men refused to leave a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina in 1960, where he was living.
“I was the worst kind of racist,” he confessed, tearing up.
Dadone, who is white, said, “We are there to get better. We are there to work on ourselves. We are there to quit harming ourselves and others.”
Coming to the Table aims to foster such candid conversations about race in order to promote racial healing, as well as to prompt Americans to face up to consequences of three centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and “separate but equal” laws, and to dismantle racism.
During last month’s gathering at Annapolis’ Unitarian Universalist Church, the group — mostly white liberals and a few African-Americans — watched videos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and author James Baldwin discussing income inequality and wealth redistribution.
Afterward, one white man lamented that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Carl Snowden of the Caucus of African American Leaders in Anne Arundel was more optimistic: “History does repeat itself, but if nothing has changed, it means their lives [Baldwin and King] were in vain. To believe nothing has changed, it is to not understand what Dr. King and Baldwin were saying.
“People’s lives are being improved. Things are changing,” he said.
The Coming to the Table movement that began in the mid-2000s has spiked in the past two years, climbing from 10 local groups across the country to 32, including three in the Baltimore area. They initially focused on white-black relations but have expanded to others affected by racism.
“People don’t know how to have conversations with each other — that is why we are having all these hate crimes,” said Jodie Geddes, chairwoman of the Coming to the Table board.
One problem, she said, is a kind of “call-out” culture where people are afraid to talk about race for fear of being labeled racist.
“We’re the container for people to open their eyes, talk, see what’s happening and then move toward action,” she said.
Vaughan had metamorphosed from white supremacist to racial justice evangelist. He said hearing from African-Americans, Hispanics and Filipinos about their daily discrimination had changed his perspective.
“I hadn’t been in their conversations,” said Vaughan, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M. “I thought they had experienced life as I had.”
Vaughan and Carrigan have trained about 80 Presbyterian pastors in Philadelphia to conduct their own Coming to the Table circles and started employee circle groups at Anne Arundel Medical Center. They made a presentation of the program for the Episcopal Diocese of Easton on the Eastern Shore. Anne Arundel County public schools are considering Coming to the Table discussions.
Vaughan inspired Alyssa Ehrsam to start a Harford County group in 2017.
Hearing some stories of what African-Americans face left Ehrsam, 49, speechless after her first Coming to the Table experience.
“It was so emotional. It made me realize my ignorance,” she said.
Ehrsam, who is white, recalled feeling pride at the gathering sharing that she was a descendant of Irish immigrants — not slaveholders.
Then she read more about racial history, including how the Irish were once aligned with people of color, but then many turned on them to boost their social status.
“It makes me cringe today,” she said of voicing her ignorance in the meeting. “We learn from our mistakes.”
The meetings are confidential and set up similar to Native American healing circles. A question is asked. Participants respond one by one while holding a “talking stick.” No one may interrupt or criticize. The format enables every perspective to be heard and fosters a deeper listening, Carrigan said.
Although Coming to the Table is about bringing people of different backgrounds together, most attendees are “white allies” who see injustice and want to do something about it, Geddes said.
She said many allies first come in talking about someone else’s racism. “White people think, ‘I’ve done one or two racism workshops. I voted for Obama. I know what’s happening.’ ”
Eventually, she said, many realize they’ve been in a “white bubble” and complicit in benefiting from or turning a blind eye to structural racism and injustice.
It’s a kind of scene that while cathartic to those speaking, hasn’t always been received well by people of color, according to Geddes and Carrigan.
Geddes, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has a master’s degree in conflict transformation, said she almost didn’t return after her first Coming to the Table experience when a white woman started crying while telling a story about her black nanny.
“I was like, ‘What is this? I’m never coming back,’ ” she said. “I was guarded. I had a lot of anger building inside,” she said. “It made me not trust her. I realized I needed to hold spaces for all to be heard.”
Carrigan said that for black people, seeing white people react to their stories and confess to being racist can have impact.
“Many black people say, ‘Oh, my God. I never heard any white person admit to being racist or talk in this way and want to make things better,’ ” she said. “That is important.”
At last year’s Coming to the Table national conference at Virginia’s Eastern Mennonite University, author David Campt focused a session on tips for white allies. He paired audience members — mostly older white women — to practice talking to a relative skeptical about racism. Campt recommends that practitioners look for common ground and not lecture. He says, “Facts don’t work,” but there is a “power of story.”
Building a relationship and telling personal narratives is the kind of strategy Coming to the Table missionaries have been deploying with racism skeptics.
Kaye Whitehead, an author, radio host and associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, said the only way to reach certain white nationalists or “good-natured” white people who call police on black people at, for example, a Starbucks, is through small, interracial group discussions.
“You care about breast cancer when someone you know gets breast cancer,” she said. “You care about black marginalization when you know someone who has suffered through that.”
Whitehead, who has participated in Coming to the Table discussions, said, “We need allies. We need advocates on the front lines with us and sometimes stepping in front of us.”
She said the issue is how to get beyond the “choir” at the meetings and reach the “uncles and grandfathers.”
In December 2017, after white cheerleaders in suburban Salt Lake City were seen on video screaming a racist slur, Vaughan and Geddes were called to their school to give circle discussions.
Geddes said demand for race discussion groups has grown “exponentially” in recent years, though it’s unclear what impact they are having. Many attendees’ work happens outside, such as showing up at school board meetings or city hall protests, or campaigning for more diverse political leadership.
The national Coming to the Table organization recommends ways to work toward reparations for African-Americans, such as supporting anti-racist organizations and legislation to mitigate inequalities.
Some in the Annapolis group have become well-known area activists, such as Dadone, who is white and helped lead Maryland’s Poor People's Campaign, modeled after the one King organized.
In December, Snowden attended the gathering, noting recent political turnover — the departures from office of County Councilman Michael Peroutka, who had been a member of the neo-Confederate League of the South and lost his primary; Councilman John Grasso, who shared anti-Islamic posts on Facebook and lost a bid for the state Senate, and County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican who continued to endorse Grasso for the Senate.
“The work that people are doing in this room is making a difference,” he said.