The Big Table

Sep 19, 2020 | Community, Food

After the inauguration in 2017, Cathy Berkey was troubled over how polarized our society had become. The divisiveness in our country had become palpable, creating a crevasse so wide we couldn’t see our family, friends, and community members on the other side. We had all retreated to our insular bubbles, our echo chambers of like-minded allies who amplified our own points of view.

Cathy, who had recently moved to Louisville from San Francisco, wanted to build a bridge to bring various sectors of the community together again. “We lack ‘we spaces’ — neutral zones for gathering that give us permission to talk,” Cathy said. “The only way through this time is to stop advocating, to park our own points of views at the door, and to listen to others.”

So, she called up her friend Jud Hendrix, executive director of Interfaith Paths to Peace, to brainstorm some ideas for uniting our community through productive dialogue. Jud and Cathy wondered, what is the best way to bring people together and get them to listen to one another? That is when they found their answer: Dialogue starts over food. And that is where the annual The Big Table was born.

Each year, in a park across the city, Cathy and Jud host one of the world’s largest potlucks. Last year, over 1,800 community members gathered at 350 tables lined up across Iroquois Park. Groups gather in parties of eight, intentionally designed to intermingle diverse groups. A host at each table facilitates a rich conversation by reading from a deck of cards created by Jud. Each question is designed to go beyond cultural and socioeconomic differences to initiate a meaningful conversation. “Jud put his heart and soul into these cards that ask questions like: ‘If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?’ These questions help people find ways to sit down together again and figure out what unites us.

“Our biggest question when we plan the next event is always ‘who else?’” says Cathy, who has a background in organizational development. “We want to make sure that all sectors of the community have a seat at the table. We contact as many organizations that represent as many types of people possible.”

This past October, those at The Big Table decided what was missing were conversations about things that divide us. “The Big Table unites, so we decided to host an event called Courageous Conversations on Race and gear our table leaders’ questions toward racial equity, Cathy says. “The questions facilitate that dialogue, such as: ‘When was the first time you were aware of your race? What advantages or disadvantages have you had because of race in your life?’ And, ‘Within your sphere of influence, what action could you take to create more racial equity?’”

Unfortunately, a little pandemic put the brakes on this important event. Social distancing mandates have furthered the divide and made it impossible to sit together at a table with people outside our bubbles. Cathy has hosted several COVID-appropriate Courageous Conversations on Race via zoom each Sunday at 7pm but is looking for creative ways to cultivate more participation.

In our current crisis, the call for courageous conversations around racial equity in our city could not be more important. “This concept is first about self-reflection,” Cathy explains. “We want people to discuss what their lived experience is. Your lived experience creates your values, decisions, and world views. You can’t argue with someone’s life experience, but you can begin to empathize with them. Our method is empowering people to get one step closer to racial equity. At an event in 2018, one of our hosts brought a group of black students from the west end. One student said it was the first time they ‘sat next to a white person that didn’t act like I was going to jump them.’ The kids and the adults at the table kept in contact well after the event. If that’s the minimum we can do, come on, what else can we accomplish?”

If you have ideas as to how to continue The Big Table or Courageous Conversations on Race, contact Cathy at 502.619.9390 or cathy.berkey@gmail.com.

P.S. Read about women volunteers working to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.