Founded in 2006, Coming to the Table (CTTT) is a national organization devoted to engaging individuals and community groups in the work of racial healing and reconciliation. CTTT’s network encompasses fifty local affiliate groups in eighteen states, nine of which currently operate in Virginia.
CTTT RVA, the organization’s largest chapter in Virginia, was founded in 2014 by Martha Rollins and Danita Rountree Green, community organizers who forged a friendship out of profoundly different backgrounds. Rollins is a descendant of Robert E. Lee, Green a self-described child of the civil rights movement. “If you were to look at us together, you would think that we are as far apart as two people could possibly be,” Green says. Their friendship served as the inspiration for their grant-funded project, LINKED, a series of videos featuring conversations between “linked pairs” of individuals connected to the history of slavery by ancestry, purpose, or place.
Green recently connected with us over Zoom to explain how the grant from Virginia Humanities is helping the Richmond chapter expand its work of bringing Virginians together to face the legacy of slavery.
Tell us about your organization. What is Coming to the Table?
We specialize in bringing people together across race, gender, age, and political lines who wouldn’t normally get to know one another. We do this through facilitated conversations – connecting people for “courageous yet clumsy and often uncomfortable” conversations on race. At Coming to the Table, and with this project in particular, we’re asking: How can we get people linked? When we think of a link, we think of chains. For some of us, that word has a very negative connotation. But links are usually strong. They’re there to bind us, to hold us together. And that’s what we wanted to do with this project. We wanted to link people – a black person and a white person – through the stories they share.
The Virginia Humanities grant is funding a series of videos. What are they about?
For this project, we reached out to our nine affiliates across the state and had them scout folks who were moving across the racial divide to make change in their communities. We looked for people who are linked together through one of three ways – a blood relation, a geographic place, or a purpose, like me and Martha.
We’re putting together five episodes, each coming from a very different angle of what a LINKED relationship would look like. Some of the pairs find each other through genealogical searches, some are connected through land ownership, deeds and homesteads. Some discover each other quite accidentally and some very intentionally.
Tell me about some of the individuals who form the LINKED pairs. What are some stories that have been shared and uncovered?
I’ll use Pam Smith as an example. She and Ann Neel formed a relationship and decided they would attempt to be a living example of how people can come together across historical conflicts in their lives. Pam and Ann are blood-related and historically related, through a plantation home. One of Pam’s enslaved ancestors was actually owned by one of Ann’s ancestors generations ago in Virginia. Their presentation of this history, entitled Entangled Lives, has garnered national acclaim.
Many of the pairs here in Virginia are centered around plantations. There’s Gayle Jessup White, who is Black, and Prinny Anderson, who is white; both are direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson. They’ve traveled to Monticello together to learn about their white ancestors and the enslaved community there. Greg Greenway and Reggie Harris are two men, white and Black, who are both musicians, both folklorists. They had worked together for years and then realized that they were linked by geography, Ashland, one being a descendent of the enslaved, and one being a descendent of a slaveholder.
Coming to the Table-RVA received the grant last summer, in June 2020, meaning you had to work remotely and adapt your project to be COVID-safe. How did the pandemic shape your planning process? Would LINKED look different in a pre- or post-pandemic world?
Thank you, this is an excellent question. I remember we were working feverishly on the proposal in April of last year, when the nation was hopeful that COVID would blow over within a few months. When we originally wrote the proposal, we were actually looking to bring a program to college campuses. But, of course, schools closed. So, we had to go back and figure out how we were going to find an appreciative audience. Our original idea also involved filming the LINKED pairs in the cities or counties where they lived. We would visit their homesteads, film on location in museums, college campuses, and historic sites. All of that was out.
Instead, we went with a virtual experience, which actually is serving us well. We’ve been able to do the series quicker, better, faster, and serve a wider general audience. The Linked series models the world we want to see, the world we want to be where people can move through historical trauma and evolve into a new definition of community.
You start by recording a conversation with a LINKED pair. Then what?
We send people or an organization the link to the recording and let them watch it on their own, and then—this is the important part—we come back as a group and talk in a safe, moderated space about what we saw. How did these pairs overcome real or perceived differences and build lasting relationships? Why was this important and life-changing?
The thing that makes Coming to the Table different from most organizations is that we have two different sets of people, trained facilitators and ambassadors, who work in a break-out room to create a safe space for conversations, and to help people be honest and authentic in their storytelling. Our ambassadors are African Americans, principally from here in the Richmond city area, most of whom are already doing some kind of grassroots work in their communities. We have them at the table in these conversations to be able to share not only their personal stories, but also to offer ways that our predominantly white-viewing audience can say, “Oh, okay, I can partner with you in that, I can support you in that.” That’s the building relationship part that we want to see. It is life changing.
And, ideally, those relationships last beyond the initial conversation.
Right. Pam Smith and Ann Neel, for instance, have been close friends now for decades.
I want to take a minute to say that part of Coming to the Table’s name comes from the idea of coming together at a dinner table where it’s much easier to have contentious conversations over food – which we did do, in fact, on a monthly basis before the pandemic hit. That feeling of connectedness and family is a little harder to get virtually, but we’ve been able to find ways to work through it.
What’s next for LINKED?
If we’ve been able to link people in Richmond, the former home of the Confederacy, why not elsewhere? We’re talking about using LINKED to bring people together not just in the Commonwealth, but in other states, and possibly beyond. We think about what happened with the Black Lives Matter movement last year and how that crusade went global. I like to think that the LINKED project could go global in that same way. The virtual mode of it is actually doing a lot to help that. We see opportunities to introduce it through global colleges and universities. There are a lot of possibilities. Gratefully, James Gannon, a producer and correspondent for Al Jazeera, is volunteering his time to bring a LINKED documentary into fruition. We predict a worldwide audience for this project. People are crossing borders everywhere!
How did you learn about Virginia Humanities, and why did you choose to apply for a grant here?
We had never applied for a big grant before, but we knew that Virginia Humanities had always been really good about finding the untold story. The people who have gotten Virginia Humanities grants before are usually coming from a place that’s never been recognized or rarely been heard from. I have a lot of respect for that. We were crazy excited about getting funded. About the money, yes! But we were really more excited about being part of Virginia Humanities and the tradition of work they have supported and brought to all parts of the state. That’s a tradition to be proud of.
Attend a virtual CTTT RVA gathering.
Watch the trailer for the new LINKED documentary currently in the works.