10 groups throughout city share dinner in effort to help citizens meet their neighbors
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Friday night, across Santa Rosa, about 100 strangers broke bread with one another in a city-sponsored experiment in community building.
In the first of what the city hopes will be many such events, 10 groups of about 10 people each shared a potluck meal in an effort to get to know their neighbors, discuss what makes communities special, and brainstorm ideas for how to build stronger ones.
“In a community where people know each other, it’s safer and it’s safer for the kids,” said Dory Escobar, who attended a meal at the Vista Del Lago condominium complex in Bennett Valley. “I think we desperately need to get back to that in Santa Rosa.”
The program, called Discussions Inspiring Neighborhood Engagement, or DINE, is the brainchild of Georgia Pedgrift, the city’s new community engagement coordinator and co-host of the Bennett Valley event.
Pedgrift, a native Santa Rosan, says she modeled the program after one she learned about in Texas called Desoto Dining and Dialogue. The nonprofit group encourages people from various cultural backgrounds to share a meal together in an effort to “improve understanding, enhance quality of life, and promote harmony among the racially diverse citizens of Desoto, Texas,” its mission states.
Desoto, a city of around 50,000 people south of Dallas, has struggled with racial tensions, and the program sought to bridge the cultural and racial divide separating its citizens.
“When I saw it, I said ‘Hmmm, that’s an interesting concept,’ ” Pedgrift recalled.
She saw in the Desoto program a way to help accomplish some of the goals of her new office, which are to help link people to city services, encourage volunteerism and get residents more involved in the city’s public processes.
While the city has several established neighborhood associations, Pedgrift feels more can be done to help foster stronger, more engaged neighborhoods. For the DINE event, she reached out to “hundreds upon hundreds” of people throughout the community in search of three kinds of people: those willing to host a meal, those willing to facilitate a discussion and those interested in participating.
She then assigned participants to a host in their general geographic area, trying whenever possible to “cross-pollinate” the groups to create a good mix of interests, she said. The meals took place from 6 to 8 p.m. across the city.
A primary goal of the meeting was to help Pedgrift gather ideas from residents about how their communities can be made stronger and how the city can help. But she also hoped that through the meetings, neighbors who didn’t know one another could strike up connections that over time could become the relationships that bind a community together.
“There are so many benefits to knowing who your neighbors are and feeling like you can count on them,” Pedgrift said.
At the Bennett Valley event, participants munched on bruschetta, lasagna and salad while facilitator and Sonoma State University student Samie Moazzami walked the group through a series of questions designed to get them to think about what community means and how it can be strengthened.
After noting many of Santa Rosa’s strengths, such as its natural beauty and the warmth of its residents, participants cited significant challenges. Crime and the impact of budget cuts were two common themes. Vista Del Lago resident Leticia Hanke noted her car has been burglarized twice in her complex. “I felt violated,” said Hanke, a roofing contractor.
Many others said they felt abuse of drug and alcohol is a growing problem in the city, especially among youth. Matt Coxon, 25, who is training to be an EMT, said the number of overdoses he’s seen is amazing, noting that teenagers dealing drugs are “nonchalant” about it.
For more information about the program, visit: http://ci.santa-rosa.ca.us/departments/cityadmin/communityengagement/Pages/default.aspx