Welcome Table SC employs candid conversations to help students understand how race affects their lives and the lives of those around them.
By Lindsey Hodges
Nov. 4, 2016
Dawn Campbell grew up in Orangeburg, a South Carolina community she viewed as racially divided and steeped in prejudice.
“I witnessed lots of racial bias even within my own family, within my own neighborhood, within my schools and community,” said Campbell, an adjunct women and gender studies professor at the University of South Carolina.
Now, as a leader of Welcome Table SC, she wants to end the silence and open up conversations about race and prejudice.
The University of South Carolina’s Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation launched the Welcome Table in October.
The initiative is timely coming just over a year after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston in April 2015 and the slayings of nine black church members in Charleston in June 2015.
Dylann Roof, a young white man who talked of starting a race war, is accused of the church killings; jury selection was set to begin in U.S. District Court in Charleston Nov. 7. A former North Charleston police, Michael Slager, is on trial now for the murder of the motorist, Walter Scott, who was shot in the back as he fled a traffic stop.
Welcome Table groups meet three to four times a month to discuss race in their communities and share stories about how race has shaped their personal experiences. Welcome Table groups then talk about different ways that reconciliation can be reached and communities can be changed for the better.
Each group, made up of about 20 people, meets with trained facilitators to have confidential conversations about race. Campbell will be one of those facilitators, leading participants through emotional, eye-opening and candid conversations about race.
When professors at the university were invited to apply as facilitators, Campbell, a mother of a mixed-race daughter, said she saw it as an opportunity to connect her personal and professional life and help her community.
Welcome Table SC is modeled on a program established by the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Recognition. The Winter Institute’s program, which began in 2004, has three main phases – self-reflection and relationship building; education and discernment; and equity plan development.
In Mississippi, the William Winter Institute has established mentoring programs and dental programs, built playgrounds and at least one community center.
Organizers of South Carolina’s Welcome Table plan to do something similar, starting at the university level and expanding to communities across the state.
Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo, director of the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, said meetings have already taken place in towns such as Darlington, where participants viewed “A Seat at the Table: Pathways to Reconciliation.” Ferillo, who was assitant director for the documentary, said about a half-dozen South Carolina communities have expressed interest in the program.
He hopes people will listen to each other as they talk about how they have viewed race and what they were taught when they were young. Ferillo said those around the Welcome Table will talk about their first impressions of race, how those impressions have altered with time and how they view race relations in their community.
Racial inequality runs deep throughout South Carolina’s history. Slaves were brought from Africa to South Carolina, where they toiled for generations to support the agricultural economy of the state.
Even after slavery was outlawed and the Reconstruction period began, African-Americans were not treated as equals to white people. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, made it difficult for black people to gain access to education and enjoy civil rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Wounds in society from this injustice still exist today.
“We still have this huge gap culturally and live apart rather than live as a unified society, and we’re paying the price for that with violence, with the lack of health care and decent education for a lot of African-American citizens who, by law, have equal rights to those services but by practice are excluded,” Ferillo said.
Campbell remembers vividly her first childhood experience with racism. Her father overheard her talking on the telephone with her best friend, a black girl. Afterwards, he forbid her to have future telephone conversations and would not allow the girl to visit their home.
“That was kind of my first real eye-opening experience to difference and how difference can be perceived in a negative way, and I just remember not understanding all of that,” Campbell said.
There are physical exercises in the Welcome Table meetings, including one in which participants move forward or backward based on statements about their upbringing and environment. At the end of the semester, the groups plan weekend retreats to strengthen sentiments and relationships.
Ferillo has raised more than $100,000 for the program since January and hopes to raise an additional $100,000 by the end of the year.
The Winter Institute in Mississippi raised $200,000 in start-up funds from two best-selling authors, John Grisham and Toni Morrison. One of the William Institutes major sponsors is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is dedicated to racial equity. Ferillo said he hopes major sponsors will sign onto the program to ensure its future in South Carolina.
Ferillo said one of the main themes of the Welcome Table SC is this: human problems, local solutions. Now that Welcome Table SC discussions have begun at the University of South Carolina, local solutions to persistent race problems are being discussed for the advancement of the state.
Campbell is looking forward to spreading greater understanding.
“I hope this helps them to find ways to better be able to know how to deal with it [prejudice] and come to an understanding and a reconciliation.”