The Table at St. Olaf: good food, tough questions

“Would you rather have a blowhole or a monkey tail?” asks one of the question cards scattered across the room at Felland House. The silly question is a far cry from the card that sits beside it, which reads, “What are some of the hardships that people of color face today?” This is the type of serious question that exemplifies the mission of The Table at St. Olaf.

The primary goal of the Table is to bring people together and encourage the discussion of issues that might not otherwise come up in ordinary conversation.

“We invite students, faculty and community members together, but we really emphasize our focus on students from many different backgrounds on campus,” said Sam Goldstein ’16. “Whether you’re in Ole Choir or on the baseball team, or whether you are in this organization of the college or another.”

The Table at St. Olaf stems from a parent organization in Minneapolis called Marnita’s Table. The organization invites people from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to eat dinner together and discuss public policy and community issues. St. Olaf’s Table wanted to emulate that.

“We took their model and we look at a more social focus, and some of the social constructs that exist on our campus that contribute to the bubble phenomenon that we have on campus,” Goldstein said.

Another house member, Carl Graefe ’16, said, “Not just the bubble of St. Olaf as a community and the greater Northfield community, but also, we think that St. Olaf is segmented into a fairly ‘bubbly’ community, in that there are groups within the St. Olaf community that don’t necessarily have the opportunity to talk about some of these things together.”

The dinner discussions, called “tables,” are intentionally designed to be welcoming and unintimidating. Graefe and other house members prepare a meal for the guests, which always intentionally includes a variety of dietary options. Question cards stimulate discussion and the event encourages the guests to meet new people.

After about an hour of mingling, the house members gather guests into their small living room for a segment called “circle share-in.” During circle share-in, all attendees are able give a brief answer to a question surrounding the theme of discussion.

“We gather everybody into our living room…people will have to sit on the floor, cozy up to people that they haven’t met, but we put everybody in the same room,” said John Bruer ’16. “We offer an opportunity for everybody to have their voice heard by everybody. There’s something really powerful to that, particularly when you’ve got such a large group of people and there’s really no way that they’re all going to get to meet everybody at the table, but we want hear from them, and have others hear the diversity of ideas in the room.”

The Table at St. Olaf has experienced great success in its first year, with an average attendance of about 65 people.

“These are people that are staying for the entirety of the event,” said Bruer. “Our events run an hour and a half. It’s an hour and a half packed full of conversation between different people.”

It’s important to note that The Table discussions are different from the other types of discussions held on campus. The guys came up with the idea to bring the idea of table discussion to St. Olaf during their freshman year, when they experienced a number of microaggressions on campus.

“The way that these microaggressions were being handled were through various meetings, but we realized that there was always a certain type of Ole that was the mainvoice at these meetings. And we figured that everybody has to have some feelings, some thoughts on what was going on,” said Graefe.

When asked their response to a student who might be hesitant to attend a table, all three agreed that it’d be good to give it a try.

Claire Bransky ’17, who has attended two of The Table’s events, said that “the guys who live there do an awesome job of creating a space where everyone feels comfortable just marching up to a stranger and introducing herself or himself – it’s a little like the magic of Week One when everyone wants to be your friend, except minus the awkwardness of being a new first-year.”

Yassmine Sarkarati ’16 agreed. “I will continue to go to events at The Table,” she said, “and I highly recommend students who like talking about social issues, meeting new people and eating delicious food to go as well.”

The Table at St. Olaf will hold its next table event on Friday, Feb. 27, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. The discussion topic is “Safety on the Hill: A conversation about sexual assault, campus events, and administrative policy.”

Photo Courtesy of Precious Ismail