Published September 14, 2021 at 2:53pm.
Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Liliana Banta.
Dionne Kirby experienced the realities of racism on her first day of Kindergarten. The place where she was expected to learn, not only academically, but also socially, was immediately tinged with exclusion, starting with a conflict in the cafeteria line. But decades later, Dionne is leading the effort to create a safe place for conversations around race, with a meal at the very center.
Dallas Dinner Table was founded in 1999, with a focus on improving race relations in Dallas-Fort Worth, one dinner at a time. This year Dionne accepted the role as Executive Director and is leading the transition from a local organization, to a national campaign, now known as America’s Dinner Table.
The organization’s hallmark event is the annual dinner that coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, creating an opportunity for hosts and guests to experience diverse perspectives and stories about how race impacts someone’s daily life.
Dionne was raised in Dallas and attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she focused on dance and music. “I spent a lot of my childhood in a majority white suburb, so when I went to Booker T., it was very freeing for me to be just among creative people,” Dionne says. “I didn’t have to be the Black girl, I could just be. But for college, one of the things that was big for me is that I was afraid to be a Black person who was ashamed of being Black.” Out of the desire to surround herself with Black culture and excellence, Dionne chose Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania, where she earned degrees in English Education and Spanish.
After college, Dionne moved to Washington D.C., where she began a career in the nonprofit sector, focusing her energy on education and youth development. Nine years later Dionne was back in Dallas, working in the public school system, eventually settling into a development role with Literacy Achieves. But when Dallas Dinner Table was looking for a new Executive Director, she could sense it was the right step at the right time. “I applied for the Dallas Dinner Table job on Indeed on a Friday night, and heard my phone ping. After I finished the application, I looked at my phone and there was a LinkedIn message from the person leading the talent search for the same position,” Dionne remembers.
Dionne stepped into the new role this past May, eager to help the organization grow beyond its city limits. “Dallas Dinner Table started with a the Alumni Board at Leadership Dallas,” Dionne says. “It’s been one of those organizations that has flown under the radar a little bit because they’re simply doing the work, not doing promotions about it. They are just having dinner and real conversations, and it’s the epitome of a grassroots movement. But we have to ask, what does it look like to expand and take it to a national platform?” Since asking this question, events are now taking place in California, Arkansas, and other areas of Texas.
The idea of racial reconciliation that grows table by table is one that goes beyond partisan messages, and instead embraces the idea of community. “I want to ensure the impact of this homegrown gem is nationally known for its attributes of peace and transformation,” Kirby said. “Dallas Dinner Table provides the opportunity to listen, see ourselves in others, and rethink the stories we tell. Many Dallasites know about our annual event held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but many aren’t aware that local, national corporations, and nonprofits engage us throughout the year.”
If you are interested in learning more about America’s Dinner Table, hosting your own in-person or virtual event, or attending a dinner, visit dallasdinnertable.com and be on the lookout for their national expansion.