Frank conversations about race are challenging, but Indianapolis chef Tanorria Askew is trying to make them a little easier.
Until last year, Askew worked in human resources for a credit union, where she focused on diversity and inclusion issues. Encouraged by a friend, she auditioned for Master Chef and was chosen to compete in Season 7, where she made it to the Top 4 and earned high praise for her shrimp and grits. (Judge Gordon Ramsay called them the best in the history of the show.) After Master Chef, she left her day job and launched Tanorria’s Table, a multi-faceted private chef service.
Using her background from the credit union and her passion for feeding others, Askew brings together people every few months with the goal of talking about diversity, racial reconciliation, and sometimes, faith. Called Unity Tables, Askew hosts the dinners in a different person’s home each time. She usually provides the food but she has also done the dinners potluck-style when time is tight.
While she thinks her training in diversity issues helps her facilitate conversations and de-escalate potential conflicts, she does think it’s possible for others to host their own Unity Tables. Below, she shares a few tips.
1. Consciously diversify your table. “Invite people who don’t look and think like you to the dinner to have an open dialogue. This is the most important thing," she says
2. Keep the dinners intimate. “I invite as many people as will fit at the host’s table—that’s usually between 8 and 15. If the dinner is larger, you'll need to split into smaller groups and have more facilitators.”
3. Appoint a facilitator. Askew recommends asking someone to lead who has experience with diversity and inclusion issues. If that’s not possible, she suggests that at least one person check out the Latasha Morrison’s videos and guides at Be The Bridge, which first inspired her Unity Tables. “Her work is faith-based, but your conversation does not have to focus on any particular religion,” she says. When Tanorria facilitates, she always starts by asking people what their ethnicity is, which often brings up complex answers. At the end, she always ends the conversation with the question, "Now what are we going to do?”
4. Declare the table a safe space. “Make sure people know, what happens at the table stays at the table,” she says.
5. Prepare people in advance. “It’s important people not come to the table with an agenda and the hopes of changing minds. The dinners should not be political or a place for people to vent their anger. The goal is for people to share experiences and to listen to them.”