NOLA.com / The Times Picayune
It’s long been noted that some of the most thought-provoking conversations, live-changing initiatives and landmark business deals take place over the dinner table.
The Baton Rouge Area Chamber hoped its inaugural “Around the Table” event would spark some of those things, by serving as a conduit for more provocative conversations, friendships, and most importantly, to connect newcomers to area community connectors.
In 20 different dinner locations across Baton Rouge, 225 participants planned to discuss one topic each ranging from “what would you do if you could not fail,” to “finding new solutions to old problems,” all with an intention to share genuine, raw ideas and get to know people participants wouldn’t normally meet on a personal level.
While some participants dined in the homes of their hosts with chef-prepared meals, others met in private rooms of restaurants or catered venues.
Walking into the front doors of Bistro Byronz on Government Street, I knew from the laughs I heard coming from the back room that I’d been matched with a fun group.
Hosted by Sam Sanders, executive director of Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, our group ranged from an IBM systems application developer in his mid-20s to a recently retired interior designer in her early 70s. Most had moved to Baton Rouge from all over the continent, as far away as Nova Scotia.
Before even jumping into the topic, the marketplace of ideas took diners on a winding road from St. George to the vast difference between downtown Baton Rouge and Mid City redevelopment.
“We’d like to see more development happen in Mid City like what’s happened in the downtown area,” one diner said. Agreeing, another asked, “what will it take,” leading the table down a conversation on the value placed on the neighborhood based on prior perceptions of elevated crime and resources allocated for Mid City.
Our entrees were accompanied by a glimpse into the ideals that motivate each person. “What gives you meaning as an individual,” Sanders asked the group, the pre-planned topic.
Kicking off the conversation, Sanders shared about his experience growing up shy and not overcoming it until his adulthood.
“Service gives me meaning,” said Shanna McCarthy, who aside from her job as the director of development at McMains Children’s Developmental Center, serves on several boards and volunteers with several organizations, including hospice service at SouthernCare. “I get to support these people toward the end of their lives. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been a murderer or anything else. I’m there for them.”
LSU Audiology instructor Wendy Jumonville says establishing meaningful relationships give her meaning, while Charles Sylvest says, “If I tell you I’m going to do something, I do it. That’s what gives me meaning as an individual.”
At one moment in the dinner, guests became emotional hearing about what gives Kimberly Bardell meaning. Being able to overcome health obstacles, and having family and friends at her side to help has defined her as an individual.
In the Old Goodwood neighborhood at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune Community Engagement Specialist Kiri Walton’s dinner location, early conversations spun off into several different other conversations, so much so that they didn’t delve deep into their planned topic, “new ideas for old problems.” Although, the topic was never specifically addressed, they touched on it throughout their conversations about the growing slow food movement and great places to shop for fresh food in Baton Rouge.
Mingling at the home of Susan Kelliher with the 10 other strangers I’d have dinner with that night, we quickly learned that many of us have ties to Atlanta.
Most everyone was from Louisiana. Some had moved away and recently returned. Others, like myself, just landed here for the first time. Almost everyone in our group was married with kids, aside from myself and another woman, who also just moved from Atlanta.
Our hostess for the night helped make the event warm and inviting. Susan, the senior vice president of human resources at Albermarle, was always smiling and laughing. It was also immediately apparent that she’s a strong woman. We could see that she had arms that rival First Lady Michelle Obama’s and at some point, she mentioned that she does cross fit training at Red Stick Cross Fit. Admiring, I thought, “this woman is a bad mama-jamma,” and “I really should start doing CrossFit.”
For me, the period before we actually sat down to eat was the most fun part of the night. It was also surprisingly empowering. I was with two women I’d never met before and we discussed their experiences when they first moved to Baton Rouge as adults and their quest to find their fit here.
The sentiments they expressed about the city being cliquish were ones I’d heard several times before, which is interesting because I haven’t experienced such. At least not yet.
The women estimated my experience has been different from theirs because Millennials are more welcoming to everyone and seek out people and as many social connections as possible. Also, they said, the city swelled after Katrina and forced people to learn to deal with people outside their small circles, which could make the city overall more welcoming than it had been in the 80s and 90s.
Taking the conversation in a different direction, the group of accomplished ladies joked about how at some point after you turn 30, you begin a list.
“Oh yeah. A bucket list?” one of the women asked. “A plastic surgery list,” another responded, jokingly.
We laughed, but they told me it’s true. Women begin to seriously think about procedures they’d like to get done once they reach a certain age or after they have children.
“How interesting,” I thought to myself. These fabulous and beautiful women have things they’d like to change, too.
Most intriguing to me was Susan’s family’s strict adherence to a rule that helps keep them healthy and active, while simultaneously helping the environment. No one in her family uses motorized transportation to go anywhere within a five-mile radius of their home.
“That’s why we live where we live, so we can create community in a small space,” Susan explained.
The two-year Baton Rouge resident said our city has a certain “cool factor,” and she just wants it to reach its maximum coolness by establishing new spaces, initiating events like an annual “Bike to Work Day” and helping the city become more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly.
“I have 300 employees,” she said, and by being a part of the evolution of Baton Rouge to a city more accessible for people using all modes of transportation could help attract those talented individuals she and other business executives are seeking.
Throughout the night, participants shared photos, quotes and fun observations on Twitter using #EatTalkConnect.
At an after-party held at Radio Bar on Government Street, diners from all 20 locations gathered to share their experiences. “This was my best night in Baton Rouge,” lauded Dima Ghawi, IBM talent development manager.
“I hope we do it again and people take a moment to think what this is all about and maybe host their own conversations, and have those deep conversations we talked about,” Sanders added.