Amid inclusion discussions, Hudson residents create a 'longer table'
Liz Bruch, 76, silently concentrates on her color marker masterpiece: a row of blue, yellow and pink flowers. Across the table, Celia Olson, 18, adds polka dots to her green peace sign.
Smiley faces and hand-written messages like "On the inside we're all just pink" and "Say hi to the people around you" adorn the giant sheet of paper set to line the 160-foot-long stretch of connected tables for Sunday's "The Longer Table" event. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 5, the Hudson Inclusion Alliance will host a community potluck at Lakefront Park, with over 150 expected attendees.
"We want to punctuate Hudson with a very welcoming event," said Tony Bol, one of the HIA leaders. "It is a scrappy concept with good intentions."
Since a Hudson Star-Observer story published in May 2018 covering residents' differing views on Hudson's ability to support people of all backgrounds — which included that the Southern Poverty Law Center added the local group Citizens for the St. Croix Valley on its list of anti-Muslim hate groups — members from the Citizens group have spoken at nearly every Hudson Common Council meeting, claiming that the Southern Poverty Law Center itself is a hate group and threatening legal action against those who they claim have defamed the group.
The SPLC has said it added the Citizens group to its hate map after evaluating the group's events with prominent anti-Muslim speakers and anti-Muslim rhetoric on the group's website, Facebook page and letters to the editor in the Hudson Star-Observer.
In addition, Citizens representatives have distributed pamphlets at local businesses arguing that the SPLC is a discredited organization and urging people to call the police if they feel harrassed by the Hudson Inclusion Alliance.
In response, some members from the HIA have also spoken at Common Council meetings, emphasizing the danger of the group's anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Between speeches at meetings and letters to the editor in the Hudson Star-Observer, Common Council member Jim Webber says he thinks the topic of inclusion has gotten lost in recent months.
"The issue kept moving further and further away from 'is Hudson welcoming or not?' It started to talk about the characterization about the Citizens for the St. Croix Valley, and we kind of got a little contest going on about who's a hate group and who isn't," he said. "This [event] is an opportunity to behave differently, act appropriately and actually care about each other."
Redirecting attention to inclusion is what Bol says he hopes to do with this next event. He's also taken a break from speaking at meetings and writing letters to the editor.
"Our group has been pretty universal in our belief that we want to avoid anything that results in adding to a toxic environment. Avoiding polarizing language or negative engagement," HIA co-leader Kerry Geurkink said. "We're stepping back ... recognizing that all it does is make everyone upset with everyone."
Organizations that have hosted similar events across the country report positive results.
In Tallahassee, Florida, the Mayor's Office has co-hosted an annual "longer table" event since 2015, drawing more than 1,200 attendees to its latest event.
"It's about building connections across a community that didn't exist before. And the importance of that is, if your community were to ever need to come together, you've already started the process," said Jamie Van Pelt, chief of staff and communications director for the Tallahassee Mayor's Office, which co-hosts the event.
As of Tuesday, over 150 people have RSVP'd Bol said, including members of the Common Council and Mayor Rich O'Connor.
Van Pelt said the idea for his city's event originated amid increasing nationwide political and racial tension in 2014. He said Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum wanted to improve unity in the Tallahassee community, which historically has been one of the most segregated communities in the country. The Mayor's Office partnered with Florida organizations Village Square and Leadership Tallahassee, as well as the county government.
Since the initial event in 2015, the annual crowd has grown from nearly 500 to more than 1,200 in fall 2017.
Van Pelt said the organizers encourage participants to talk about their "shared experiences" of living in Tallahassee, which has resulted in a stronger community, evident in an uptick in civic engagement.
"We intentionally don't do a ton of expectation building," he said. "We try to keep the conversation as free and as open as possible ... There's no goal here except community building."
Afterwards, the city sends an online survey to participants, which includes questions on what their conversations were about. Aside from strengthening camaraderie among residents, the event and the survey have helped strengthen relations between residents and local government, Van Pelt said.
"When people engage with government, I think people can anticipate that it's a negative experience," he said. "When you engage on a level that's inherently positive, the outcomes are amazing. When they have a problem, they know who to go to."
When initially planning the event in 2014, Van Pelt said he and his team couldn't find information on similar projects in the United States. In the years since, Van Pelt says he has talked to people in Dayton, Ohio; Hickory, North Carolina; Salt Lake City, Utah; and several cities in Florida who have started their own "longer table" events.
"It continues to grow," he said. "The 'longer table' is such a unique, open and engaging way to let anybody help their city be a better place."
Community helps with food safety and civility
At a recent meeting, organizers discussed a variety of logistics, including placing chairs under shade, having volunteers shield wind if needed and supplying cooling and heating equipment to accommodate a variety of dishes.
"We have no idea what's coming," said HIA co-leader and event chair John Ramstad.
Other than ensuring safe food temperatures, HIA will enforce respectful behavior, Bol said. He plans to have volunteer mediators on stand-by and hosts at each table in charge of monitoring discussion.
Experts on civil conversation say such precautions are necessary.
"If you're not prepared for [conflict] and it takes you by surprise, then it leaves everyone fearful for coming to the next one," said Kien Lee, who co-runs the Maryland-based organization Community Science, which provides resources on building inclusive communities. "Having a plan for it can go a long way."
With the YMCA as an official sponsor, HIA has found informal help with finances and equipment from several community organizations, including Bethel Lutheran Church, which has loaned tables and chairs, and Little Free Libraries, which will supply 200 free books which Bol said focus on learning about various cultures.
"It sends a message that [Hudson's] more formal organizations and institutions share the value of a diverse community," Lee said. "I think it says a lot."
In addition, HIA raised about $500 from their online fundraiser on GoFundMe.
Advice from the pros
Celeste Headlee, an award-winning journalist at Georgia Public Broadcasting who has hosted shows including National Public Radio's All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, has drawn from her years of interviews — in addition to research — in understanding what makes conversations productive. With a book due out this fall, she has given TED Talks and continues to conduct workshops on having civil conversations.
She says in communities like Hudson, building relationships with others is a critical first step before discussing a solution to a conflict.
"Any time you can steer away from whatever the source of the problem is and get back to common humanity is going to help," Headlee said. "The best thing that could happen at this potluck is to not talk about what's bothering everybody."
When someone gets defensive, research shows your brain responds the same way it would if you were physically attacked, she said.
"There is no way that any productive dialogue is going to happen when anybody's in that mode," she said.
Instead, Hudson residents should focus on building empathy with each other. After mutual empathy has been established, attempts to settle disagreements are more likely to succeed, she said.
"What has to happen is that you have to remind each other that you are all human beings whose larger goal is a healthy community that's safe for children and is a good place to live," Headlee said.
Likewise, staff at the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center in River Falls emphasize trying to correct problematic behavior, rather than categorizing people themselves as problems.
Mediator Jakeh Clark, who is black and grew up in Oklahoma, said this notion extends to dealing with intolerance. While many may have the instinctive response to label someone a racist or bigot when they say something intolerant, this action can be counterproductive in reducing these behaviors, he said.
"Our feelings and emotions are valid, even if other people don't agree them. And we have to address those fears and anxieties in order to move beyond them," Clark said. "So if a person is afraid of a Muslim, for example, how can we address that fear so that they can overcome it? Because they may not be able to do it in and of themselves."
Clark emphasized the importance of not seeing others through labels based on their behavior.
"There are people who are super racist who are super nice ... Why label them as being this monolithic thing?" he said. "People are the way they are because of their experience and what they've been exposed to ... calling someone a racist or a bigot — that has something more to do with defining something in very limited terms, and that's just never going to help anyone," he said.
At the Twin Cities-based Islamic Resource Group, John Emery agrees that it's best not to approach hateful or Islamophobic rhetoric with counter-attacks.
"That's what they want. They just want to engage you and drag you down into the muck. That conversation is not going to go anywhere ... We want to do something productive. Do something that's going to lead to better things," said Emery, who is white and converted to Islam while serving as an Arabic translator for the U.S. Army from 1994-2003.
In his role at the Islamic Resource Group, Emery leads presentations and engages in conversations with those who have questions about Islam across the Midwest.
Emery said he will be at the event Sunday and has invited other Muslim families to attend.
"I love this because this is a chance to meet new people and build connections with people I haven't met before ... The fact that there are some people in some communities who don't like Muslims doesn't bother me at all," he said. "Once people actually meet Americans who are Muslim, it's a totally different story ... As soon as we get this religious stuff out of the way, then we can start talking about stuff that's important to us as Americans, like football and sports" he said.