By Tracey Robertson
It was obviously an experiment gone wrong.
My church had paired me—a 39-year-old Black woman—with Trudy. Trudy was a mild-mannered, fragile looking lady who was 75 years old if she was a day. Trudy had been born and raised in Sweden.
In addition to our obvious differences, I had separated from my husband of 16 years only 12 months prior and Trudy had been married more than 55 years.
I had attended the church long enough to know that its mission was to be “intentionally inclusive”. Like Oshkosh, the church had seen a shift in its demographic. The beautiful sanctuary in south suburban Chicago had once served an all-white congregation, but the community demographic had changed in recent years. It was now home to more affluent African Americans and other minorities.
In response, the church opened its ranks to an African American Pastor of Outreach and Discipleship and began to purposely recruit members from all walks of life.
The leadership recognized that the invitation was not enough. It needed tools to encourage conversation and education. To realize its vision of making everyone feel included, the church also needed to host social activities to help foster relationships among the different ethnicities. The key to breaking down racial barriers is relationship.
The Breakfast Club was formed. The flier inserted into the weekly bulletin said that two people from different walks of life would be paired together for three months. The two participants would agree to share one meal together one time a week for the duration. During these meals, the couple would have honest dialog using a list of pre-determined questions about race in a non-threatening environment.
We had signed a contract agreeing to be non-judgmental and open-minded. We had also sworn that everything shared in the meeting would remain safe and confidential.
My reason for becoming involved was self-motivated. I had not managed to make friends since my relocation. Most of the women were stay-at-home moms. I worked at the transit authority and traveled into the City daily. This made making connections impossible.
I believed this exercise would be simple. I had worked in Corporate America alongside people of other races, and had mastered the art of “race relations”. I had memorized all of the political correct phrases we learn to say outside our homes which, if we are honest, do not mirror the things we typically say amongst our racial counterparts.
The inaugural Breakfast Club meeting is where Trudy and I were first introduced. I couldn’t imagine what the organizers believed would be gained from pairing the two of us. Trudy and I simply stared across the table at each other silently. Neither of us seemed to blink. Our eyes revealed what we were both too polite to say out loud. Later, we were able to admit to one another and the other teams that we had been incredibly afraid.
To enhance their experience, some teams decided that they would meet at a different ethnic restaurant every week. Others would meet at each other’s respective homes. Trudy and I played it safely. We met at the church Welcome Center.
I was thankful for the list of questions we had been provided in advance. At least, neither of us would have to feign real interest.
The first question packed a punch. It read, “What is your first race memory”. Judy piped in first. She shared that she was five years old. It was springtime in Sweden and many Black and Mexican men had come to help with the spring crops. Although her parents never shared any racists’ views, Judy clearly remembered one emotion that overwhelmed her upon seeing a black man for the first time. That emotion was fear.
Our regular Breakfast Club meetings gave us both our first opportunity to explore on a deeper level the views, experiences and influences that helped each of us to shape our individual opinions of others.
Trudy and I became fast friends and confidants. I ate at her home and she ate at mine. We laughed, cried and together came to the realization that we were more alike than different. I fell in love with Judy Spoor who had become a surrogate mother to me. I love her still.
Oshkosh could benefit greatly from a similar exercise. It is a way to fill the growing racial gap that segregates the city.
Our city should not be satisfied with simply tolerating each other. We should measure our success on the degree to which we accept that there is strength in our differences and that those strengths can only be uncovered when we know more about one another to leverage them for the benefit of everyone.
Tracey Robertson is a serial entrepreneur and champion for small business. Since launching her first business in 1996, she has been assisting other small business owners in realizing their dreams of becoming self-employed and self-reliant. In August 2012, she started Black Voices of Oshkosh (blackvoicesofoshkosh.com). The blog’s mission is to connect, inspire and mobilize the black citizens of Oshkosh and everywhere. In June of 2012, she self-published and authored her first book. Tracey is a native Chicagoan and mother of three.