09/02/2011 09:07 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2011

"The Table of Brotherhood... In the Cafeteria"

Last week the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial opened to the public on the National Mall in Washington, D.C . The official dedication ceremony on Sunday, August 28th, the 48th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech, was postponed due to Hurricane Irene; however, it's easy for me to visualize our first African-American President, with emotion and pride, standing in front of the stone memorial on behalf of our nation and paying homage to the life and legacy of Dr. King.

The memorial's opening is a truly momentous occasion and it demonstrates how far our nation has come resulting from the sacrifices of Dr. King and countless others who risked, and often gave their lives, in the fight for equality. I cannot honor how far we have come without acknowledging how much of Dr. King's work is left unfinished. Despite the legality of institutionalized segregation, it is a thing of the past; however, de-facto segregation remains -- with roots in cultural mistrust and poverty.

There is no clearer example of the influence of mistrust on our day-to-day interactions than inside a cafeteria, whether at school at work (elementary through executive education -- even at the Ivies). You might expect tables populated by racially and ethnically diverse individuals, but more often than not you find people with similar racial and ethnic backgrounds sitting together, sadly, with little or no contact with their fellow diners. This phenomenon is often referred to as "self-segregation" and it happens with children, teenagers, college students and adults alike. We may go to school and work together, but we do not eat together.

The cafeteria may be the key to moving beyond our perceived differences. A study entitled "Food for Thought" released earlier this month reported that college students from different backgrounds who eat together regularly are more likely to report positive race relations on campus. Further, sharing meals is more impactful in connecting across backgrounds than class interaction or shared housing.

I loved reading about the study's results because it provides a scientific grounding for what I see every day. There is a tremendous power in the seemingly simple act of sharing a meal that brings people together and helps bridge cultural differences.

Over the last nine years I have witnessed first-hand, as executive director of Common Threads, the positive impact on children's lives sharing a meal can provide. An integral part of our mission is to teach low-income children how to cook wholesome, delicious food; as well as, to have the kids sit down at the end of class and share the result of that day's lesson together. In turn, we encourage all of our participants to promote family dinners at home.

I have also witnessed the impact of poverty on our cities' ethnic divisions. Common Threads programs operate in primarily low-income communities, which are segregated neighborhoods within otherwise wealthy cities. These segregated neighborhoods suffer from extreme poverty and over the years have become homogenous enclaves where it's not unusual for a child to have never ventured beyond their immediate surroundings. In the world of so many of our little people, it is more common to know gang signs and racist slang names that to know that there is a lake in Chicago, or the ocean in LA.

One of the Program Managers, Courtney, at Common Threads told us a story last Spring about an eight year old girl in one of our classes that declared she hated white people. Courtney then asked her if she then, in fact, hated her. She responded, "well, I don't think I hate you". The little girl explained that her mom had a very bad experience with a white man, getting into a car accident and an altercation. Courtney's explanation to her was simply that there are good white people and good black people. There are also bad white people and bad black people. In this world, you just have to find the good. The rest of the class, she apparently followed Courtney around seemingly showing through her actions support and friendship.

At one of our etiquette classes where we bring our students together for a lunch where they can learn some basic table manners but most importantly how to engage in conversation and make each other feel comfortable at the table, students from different neighborhoods of different backgrounds are able to express some of their deepest thoughts with each other. We encourage big questions like if you could change anything at your school, what would it be? I don't think any of us were ready to hear from so many nine year old children that they wish their school was safer. None of us were ready to hear that one of our students felt they could never bring their parents to Common Threads because they were racist. These communities often lack resources, but what they don't lack are amazing kids who are all eager to learn. Since these children usually do not have exposure to or experiences with children from different backgrounds -- even in the same city, Common Threads uses our recipes, Summer Camp and special field trips like Manners Matter to bring children together and experience one another, opening their eyes to the different cultures and creating greater cultural understanding.

So yes, our nation has come a long way since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his seminal "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial 48 years ago. And yes, the memorial on the National Mall is a fitting tribute an extraordinary man who gave his life to our nation.

The next time you're faced with a choice of where to sit while eating, a great way to honor Dr. King is to join a group that may be outside your comfort zone. Whether it's with athletes, members of the drama club, or another ethnic group -- eat together in the cafeteria -- even if it feels awkward at first. Furthermore, we can honor Dr. King by helping our low-income communities with the most basic of life's necessities: healthy food and connection to one another.

One of my best friend's gave me some parenting advice the other night, "when you know more, you can do more, find more resources to solve problems, you can make life better." It may sound simple, too simple to make a difference, but never underestimate the power of sharing a meal. It's no coincidence that on August 28, 1963 Dr. King declared, "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."