New Detroit’s Race Relations Dinners

ometimes they're catered, and sometimes they're homemade. But no matter what's on the plate, dinners help relax everyone at the table for what can be a difficult discussion.

For more than 10 years, leaders from across southeast Michigan and beyond have gathered for New Detroit's discussions about race relations. They started as casual gatherings at homes of board members. Most times, they still are. But they have spun off larger gatherings in conference halls, all with the goal of creating a non-hostile environment to find solutions to touchy issues gripping the region.

"(In 2013), we've been focusing on education and focusing on the idea of media engagement," New Detroit president and CEO Shirley Stancato says. One of the dinners attended by WXYZ station manager Ed Fernandez led to the station's special Detroit 2020 program to follow some initiatives endorsed by New Detroit.

"There's nothing like having dinner and talking about race," Stancato says, noting that civic leaders rub elbows with grassroots workers in the community at the dinners. It's young and old. New and experienced. Black and White, and Latino, Asian and Native American, too.

Over the meals, attendees talk about their own experiences with race, what they've learned from those experiences and how similar ones impact everyone as a whole.

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"People (weren't) really talking about race across racial lines," Stancato says about the idea for the dinners, which began with Walbridge Construction CEO John Rakolta Jr., who was chairman of New Detroit from 2003 to 2010.

New Detroit has had its race relations dinners spread all the way to the annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island and has been spotlighted on WDIV.

"It's not a free-for-all; it is facilitated," Stancato says. No one "blames" each other for their shortcomings, but participants do look for common ground-and solutions for whatever might be holding a particular community back.

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