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Building Relationships Through Dinner in Corvallis

Jacob Lewin

How, on a local level, do you positively combat some of the fear and divisiveness that seem to be on the increase in our country?  A group in Corvallis found that one way to do that is with food.

Rebecka Weinsteiger, a community activist in Corvallis, noticed that this year fewer people of color were coming to meetings about neighborhood issues.  She suspected it had something to do with the fear that the nation's divisions were generating.  So she wanted to go back to basics and so some social events:

"Get to know your neighbor, you know?  How beautiful is that?"

She applied to the city and got a grant to rent a hall and put on a series of neighborhood potlucks with multicultural themes.  Then, earlier this summer, Corvallis was hit with a rash of racist anti-hispanic white supremacist graffiti downtown and on dozens of stickers put on cars, stop signs, and fire hydrants:

"I felt like I was in a bubble and when I saw what had happened downtown on the waterfront and heard about the stickering, I was really surprised."

It made Weinsteiger more determined to make the social events successful:

"There were some community members when I was promoting this on our social media sites, who were concerned about having and celebrating this culture because it might bring out those hateful people."

But this month, at the Tunison community center, more than 50 neighbors--white, muslim, latino, and african-american--put on some middle eastern music, blew up balloons for the kids, dined on homemade hummus, tabouli, pita, and melon, and talked.  Kasim Al Omari, an Iraqi-American, admitted that until now latinos were not much present in his social circle:

"I play soccer sometimes, but generally the culture here...separation.  People are caring about their own business.  Only my kids are attending school, so they do have connection with latinos.  But for myself, no."

Credit Jacob Lewin
Kasim Al Omari and Felisa Torres

And neighbor Felisa Torres admitted that there isn't a lot of contact between Corvallis's sizable group of latinos and other community groups:

"It's the language.  It's hard to communicate with somebody else. But that's when we get together. Those barriers start breaking down."

Torres has started an intercambio, sessions where English-speakers learn a little Spanish and Spanish-speker learn English. Meanwhile, in a corner of the party room, there was another kind of intercambio. Faidh Al Omari was teaching other kids how to write their names in Arabic:

"This is how to write a "b" in Arabic."

"What is it?"

A "b" and a "tuh". A "t" is the same thing except you write two dots on the top, so it's kind of like a smiley face."

Rebecka Weinsteiger says it's all a way to feel safe, and to build relationships that might come in handy if the community faces a serious problem or emergency.