OWATONNA — Making cross-cultural, cross-generational, and cross-socioeconomic connections was the order of the day Sunday during a Marnita’s Table gathering in the McKinley Elementary gym.

This was actually the second of several Marnita’s Table events in Steele County, as the outreach effort is a partnership between the organization and United Way of Steele County, said the namesake Marnita Schroedl. Over the course of a year, United Way of Steele County is learning from Marnita’s Table so events such as the one Sunday can continue for many years in the future.

United Way of Steele County received a Bush Community Innovation Grant, and part of the mission is to engage everyone in a given community, said Kim Schaufenbuel, executive director of United Way of Steele County.

“I had attended a Marnita’s Table event and just fell in love with it because it’s a tremendous model,” said Schaufenbuel.

Though Schroedl created Marnita’s Table over a decade ago, the notion that no one should feel unwelcome dates back to her childhood, when she was adopted by an Irish family and lived in an all-white town in the Pacific Northwest, she said. “I was the only person of color, so it was lonely and isolating.”

“The first thing I was ever good at was being an outsider,” but she eventually rose to high ranks in corporate America, and while “diversity” was often a buzzword within companies, she pondered “what it really means to be hospitable,” she said. “I wanted to create a space where it would really be diverse, where everyone (dines) as equals.”

Indeed, that’s part of the reason no one wears a name tag at Marnita’s Table, leading to “a family reunion” feeling, she said. “It’s very egalitarian.”

Marnita’s Table’s Sammie Ardito-Rivera was Sunday’s program coordinator, and she appreciates how the organization “takes a different approach” to community engagement, she said. “This is more about building relationships,” which is “a critical thing we’re missing” in America currently.

Groups should not silo themselves off from others, but, rather, enjoy open dialogue, she said. “That’s the world I want to see for my child.”

Having “an abundant feast” with cuisine for every type of person, from “meat-and-potatoes people,” to vegans, to those with religious restrictions, is important to the success of Marnita’s Table, because people feel unwelcome at events where they can’t eat what’s served, Ardito-Rivera said. “We mix the comfortable,” food, “with the uncomfortable,” conversing with new people.

While aspects of the Marnita’s Table model are “intuitive,” it’s also founded in extensive research, she said. The experience for attendees is engineered, including through cards on tables with conversation-starting questions, such as whether someone is currently volunteering for a cause or organization — and what is it — whether a person or event ever made a major impact on their life, and whether “you’ve learned something from someone older than you.”

The cards are “not required, but they’re a tool,” she said. “They are there in case you need a little push to get started.”

Marnita’s Table also boasts hospitality hosts at the doors to welcome visitors inside because “anyone who comes is welcome,” Schroedl said. At every Marnita’s Table she’s hosted, “there’s always a moment” when individuals who almost certainly never would have otherwise crossed paths “are leaning in” for intent conversation.

Part of the welcoming party Sunday was Lauren Williams, who has been with Marnita’s Table for two years, she said. Her favorite element of Marnita’s Table is “how we really get to serve communities.”

Tanya Paley, director of strategic operations for United Way of Steele County, told Sunday’s audience she’s “thrilled you want to be engaged in your community, and so do we.”

“All of us matter,” Paley added. “Take the opportunity to meet someone new.”

“We love connecting with different people,” said Barb Terrill, who attended Sunday with her husband, Jon. “To get people talking face to face, instead of just observing,” is beneficial to forming new relationships.

Marnita’s Table is “a time to have an actual conversation,” said Edel Fernandez, who attended a previous gathering in Owatonna and another in Rochester. “You sit at a table with people you have never met before, and we get to know each other.”

Terrill added that the conversation-starting cards on tables were also helpful.

The cards help attendees “get beyond stereotypes,” because “they’re very concrete questions,” she said. The questions are much deeper than “where are you from?”

When minority groups don’t “naturally” flourish in a given community, “we do things like focus groups and surveys,” but those can be “invasive,’ Schaufenbuel said. Marnita’s Table, on the other hand, “is fun, warm, and authentically welcoming,” which in turns makes it “comfortable and effective.”

At a previous Marnita’s Table, Schaufenbuel experienced “an ‘aha’ moment,” she recalled Sunday. During one of the activities, guests were asked to stand in various places around the room based on how long they’d lived in this area, and most of the individuals with Schaufenbuel in the 20-years-plus section were Somali.

Though some don’t realize it, those families have been in Owatonna “as long as many of us,” she added. “Our community has been diverse for many years.”

Indeed, the diversity of this community and this school district proved highly-attractive for Jeff Elstad, who took over as Owatonna’s superintendent in 2017 after spending several years in that same role for Byron Public Schools, he said Sunday. Elstad also attended the first Marnita’s Table in Owatonna, and “I learn something every time I come to one of these.”

His top takeaway thus far has been that “we have more in common than we have differences,” he said. “We believe we are so different, but we all have the same aspirations in life.”

“There is still a relationship gap in our world,” which is why establishing common causes is so crucial, Schroedl said. “We often want the same things.”

Fernandez concurred with Elstad and Schroedl, promoting that “we need to find more time to explain those commonalities.”

“We get hung up on the idea of finding differences, which is not conducive to relationships,” Fernandez added. “When you break bread with someone, you get to know them on an intimate level.”

Back when he was principal of a building in Rochester where over 30 different languages were spoken inside the school, Elstad learned to “stop making assumptions and start asking questions, because many of my assumptions were untrue,” he said. Instead, he’s constantly listening and learning from others.

He’s realized, for example, schools ought to “embrace culture,” because “culture is a big part of what makes a person special,” he said. Too often in schools, “we try to chase cultures away to be homogenous,” but, instead, “we should bring cultures in and learn about them.”

In 12 years, “we’ve put 43,000 people through this program,” and while some gatherings attract hundreds, even the ones with smaller crowds are important, because “the message gets transmitted through networks,” Schroedl concluded. Those who did attend tell the ones who missed that “you should have been there.”

Reach reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter.com @randerson_ryan


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