Cleveland transplant Ricardo Reinoso believes that giving everyone a seat at the proverbial table starts with doing just that.
This month, Reinoso launched Cleveland Dinners—a new initiative bringing diverse groups of Clevelanders together to break bread and discuss current issues openly and honestly. Reinoso knows firsthand how powerful these types of gatherings can be; after all, his upbringing largely revolved around them.
“I grew up in a family that loved to host people for dinner, and I learned that even people with vastly different philosophies could connect around the dinner table,” says Reinoso, a Tulsa native who moved to Cleveland three years ago by way of Washington, D.C. “Dining together creates a safe space to have a conversation about pretty much anything. At the core, this concept has been something I’ve always carried on.”
After seeing the success of the Decatur Dinners—a 1,200-person conversation about race that took place over a shared meal in 120 locations across Decatur, Georgia—Reinoso knew he had the perfect pedigree to bring a similar initiative to Cleveland. Held in August 2019, the timing coincided with Reinoso’s participation in the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program, which empowers emerging civic leaders by requiring them to helm a local project aimed at positive change.
As part of the NLDP cohort, Reinoso visited the Undesign the Redline exhibit and read the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “NLDP really opened my eyes to systemic racism,” says Reinoso. “Reading the book coupled with visiting the exhibit made it clear that [founding] Cleveland Dinners was what I needed to do.”
Like the Decatur Dinners, Cleveland Dinners will utilize the “Chicago Dinners” model, which was introduced by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago back in 1995 and reimagined as On the Table in 2014 (inspiring Cleveland Foundation’s Common Ground initiative). With thousands of participants to date, the model centers on bringing a wide variety of local residents and leaders to discuss race and racism.
“Racism is alive and well in every community in this nation, and we have to give people a safe space to have that conversation,” says Reinoso, who is the son of Peruvian immigrants. “I want to do that for Cleveland and allow people to connect with their neighbors and galvanize them into action.”
Each two-hour Cleveland Dinner will follow a similar format. The evening begins with a thought-provoking performance by a local actor, followed by facilitated discussions in breakout groups that are intentionally assigned with diversity in mind—and with the goal of bringing many perspectives to the table. “Having an actor present a short play or monologue helps set the tone for what becomes a facilitated conversation around the virtual dinner table,” says Reinoso, adding that he is in the process of reaching out to Karamu House and Cleveland Public Theatre to develop plays.
While all dinners will be held virtually until further notice, Reinoso hopes to host potluck dinners in homes, places of worship, and community spaces in the future. The next “test dinner” is being held this Sunday, Aug. 30, with the dinners officially launching in mid-October. Dinners will be held every six to eight weeks, with the eventual goal of hosting multiple dinners on the same evening.
Reinoso is energized by the possibilities, and he hopes that the intimate communal setting will help participants to open up and share their stories. “The real power lies in people sharing what they have experienced personally and bringing that to the conversation,” says Reinoso. “That’s when this takes on a life of its own.”