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Salt Lake event serves up diversity

As the seven other people at my table look in my direction, I nervously contemplate for a moment how I define myself in terms of "diversity." I've got three minutes to talk about it.

I start out telling them about how, as a reporter, I often find myself searching for a common bond as I try to understand people from a variety of walks of life. I also talk about the dichotomy of trying to understand the LDS culture in my reporting as a non-Mormon reporter working for a church-owned newspaper.

We're sitting together at a recent Diversity Dinner, hosted by Salt Lake County as a way to build bonds within the community.

The room is filled with about 250 people, who are admittedly self-selected. People had to reserve their spot with the Mayor's Office of Diversity. However, organizer Rebecca Sanchez says the broader community impact will hopefully be a "ripple effect."

"We do something that a good friend or someone who we trust says, 'You've got to try this,"' she said. "There were some people there I know were kind of on the fence about (diversity) things, and I said, 'Just give it a try.' That's the idea."

Each table was filled with people of very different backgrounds. The participants were curious to learn more about others' stories. They also eagerly leapt when they discovered common experiences, such as the experience many at the table had of being single children.

At mine, there's an American woman who grew up in France and married an Iranian man, and a Filipino-American who first encountered discrimination at a St. George restaurant. There's also the director of the University of Utah theater department and a Chicana woman who says for people of color, "diversity is who you are."

There's also a Latino man who grew up Catholic in East Carbon and now has LDS children. And a local director of the American Diabetes Association, who found herself out of place in the dominant LDS culture when she first moved here from California, and a proud Greek woman who works with refugees.

The idea for such a gathering came from Elise Lazar some 15 years ago after a family her husband met while traveling i the Ukraine called and asked if they could visit for three months.

"They stayed and lived with us for 3 1/2 years," Lazar told the audience. "I can't say the experience was not without its challenges, but it was for the most part wonderful .... It showed me how important it is to invite people who are not like you into your life."

We're all here seeking a connection, wanting to share and learn from each other's experiences. And it was a learning experience — instead of "speed dating," this was "speed diversity," we joked.

Being asked to talk about myself for three minutes at a time was a bit intimidating. As a reporter I'm used to a more one-sided Q&A.

For some, like me, the bell indicating it was time to move on to the next person was a welcome reprieve. However, the bell interrupted Kenton S. Mattingly's account of the first time he experienced discrimination because he's not white.

He continued the story when his next three-minute turn came, telling us how, once as a youth, he and his parents waited at a St. George restaurant for more than 45 minutes, watching others get served. First, his Filipino mother went to the counter with no results. Then, after a while, his white father went to the counter and was served immediately.

"Every so often, I get treated differently," he says. "It's always the nonverbal stuff that gets you."

Like Mattingly, each person sitting at the table had unique experiences that served as a learning opportunity for the rest of us. I learned that the Pappas in Dorothy Pappas Owens stems from her Greek heritage and is a family name associated with priests.

Mattingly was surprised to learn from Francine Mahak, who attended graduate school in Iran, that miniskirts and tube tops were once a common sight in the country now under Muslim rule.

After the dinner, some of those who attended said they felt it was a helpful way to break out of their normal social patterns, and they hoped there would be some follow-up.

"In Utah, we don't have many public places where we all congregate," says Mattingly. "This helps break down those barriers."

Organizer Sanchez says the county already plans to make the event annual and is "going to get creative" with ideas for other community events. The office is also compiling an e-mail list of participants so people can keep in touch, and will be sending out results of a survey on how participants viewed diversity before and after the event.

And some of those in attendance are already working on new networks of friends. Char Nelson left with a small stack of business cards and an invite to go salsa dancing.

"I've got so many new friends," she said. "We're so busy in our narrow little space, it takes something like this to bump us out.... I'm amazed at how quickly we shared on a very personal level."

Perhaps that's the sort of "ripple effect" organizers had in mind.