Supporters from throughout the South Suburbs will come together April 22 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Diversity Dinner, a yearly event that brings residents together for conversations on race in a friendly environment.
“We say it’s one of the secrets of the South Suburbs,” said Ruby Marsh of Flossmoor who has been a dinner committee organizer for the past 20 years.
Diversity Dinners had been hosted in Chicago and other areas around the country before it came to the South Suburbs in 1997, said Robin Kelly, who helped organize the first dinner when she served as the director of community relations in Matteson.
Kelly, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, has hosted Diversity Dinners for her congressional colleagues the past three years. She’s spoken on Diversity Dinners at conferences and answered questions for those interested in organizing dinners in their own communities.
The 20th anniversary Diversity Dinner will be at Rich South High School with a meet-and-greet starting at 5 p.m. and a buffet dinner served at 6:15 p.m. Afterward, guests will enjoy a presentation of “Incognito,” Michael Fosberg’s autobiographical one-man play that explores diversity from a dramatically different perspective.
Kelly recalled the issues of race in Matteson coming to the forefront in 1997 when NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw produced an hourlong documentary, “Why Can’t We Live Together?” It focused on Matteson as a white community that first integrated and then became a mostly black community.
That program was the impetus for action that led to the development of the first Diversity Dinner. A coalition formed that included Kelly, Barbara Moore of Park Forest and Ron Bean of Governors State University.
Both Kelly and Moore had been to Diversity Dinners in Chicago that welcomed large groups. They decided that the south suburban dinners would be better organized around small groups in private homes.
The first dinner involved 50 homes with six to eight guests at each.
“Really, the whole thing was getting people of different races, ethnicities, geographic location, ages to sit down and talk in a peaceful environment,” Kelly said.
Conversations between guests at those early dinners revolved around “what we had in common, despite the perceived barriers,” she noted. “We didn’t sit down and talk about race right away. “
Aside from her organizing work, Marsh and her husband, McAfee Marsh, have also hosted dinners. Her first dinner guests were from Homewood, Flossmoor and Matteson.
“We had a great time talking and learning about each other,” she said.
Anna Carvalho of Flossmoor, who helped organize Diversity Dinners early on, said one immediate benefit is that people who meet at the dinners are likely to encounter each other again at the ball park or the grocery store, opening the door to developing friendships.
Eventually, the event grew beyond the scope of the early, private dinners. Some years, dinners had as many as 800 guests as the event expanded from private homes to churches and schools, said Nancy Kolanowski, who worked with Kelly in Matteson.
Every five years, organizers plan one large dinner. Kolanowski calls it “an anniversary dinner to reunite with friends; it’s a celebration and serves as a reunion.”
The invite list for this year’s anniversary dinner is about 1,100 but first-time attendees are welcome as well. The dinner will be catered and served in the Rich South High cafeteria, 500 Sauk Trail, Richton Park. There is a $15 charge. Reservations are being accepted at eventbrite.com
In off years, the dinners are free and a group of 10 works on organization and fundraising efforts. Donations are being accepted through a GoFundMe
account. The group hopes to raise $5,000 through its online efforts.