Against the backdrop of the San Antonio skyline, members of various religious and cultural groups from every corner of the city broke bread and shared a thoughtful discussion during the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest‘s 11th Annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner on Thursday.
Each year, the Dialogue and Friendship Dinner draws hundreds of community members and leaders whose spirit of diversity and inclusivity unites them in their everyday work. The theme of this year’s dinner, which was held at the UIW Rosenberg Sky Room, was “Colors of San Antonio: Shaping our Future with Diversity.”
“It’s important for us to learn about all the different types of people that live here in our city,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor, who was the evening’s keynote speaker, to the Rivard Report before the dinner. Events such as the Friendship and Dialogue Dinner that highlight diversity can help San Antonio become a “globally competitive city,” she added.
While the Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit multi-cultural, multi-faith advocacy organization, has a multitude of programming like international trips, social responsibility projects, conferences, and panels among other initiatives, the Dialogue and Friendship Dinner is one of the Institute’s more powerful gatherings since it engages the community in meaningful inter-faith and inter-cultural discussion over a meal, something used even in ancient times to connect with family, neighbors, and oftentimes strangers.
The spirit of inclusion and inquisitiveness fostered at the dinner – which featured live music that welcomed the crowd into the room and pre-dinner prayers led by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic spiritual leaders – is expected to leave a lasting impression on attendees, who can replicate it throughout the community. With the topic of diversity, particularly in the arts, at the height of recent discussion in the city, it seemed fitting that such a gathering took place to remind attendees of the significance of celebrating the variety of cultures, perspectives, and world views that make up the local community.
Even Taylor agreed that the city still has a long way to go when it comes to truly embracing its diversity.
As you are well aware, violent intolerance and prejudice against those with other ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds still threatens those around the globe, and unfortunately some here and Texas and San Antonio as well,” she said in her keynote address.
Dispelling those prejudices is something we should all work toward, she added, and that’s why organizations like the Dialogue Institute, which uses education and communication to “eliminate or reduce false stereotypes, prejudices and unjustified fears” concerning various cultural and faith groups, exist.
Sister Martha Ann Kirk, Dialogue Institute advisory board member and UIW professor of religious studies, gave the evening’s opening remarks about the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen who inspired the institute’s message of tolerance and acceptance. Gulen is the inspiration behind the Hizmet movement, which champions for human rights, equal opportunities, democracy, non-violence and diverse religious and cultural acceptance.
“A local reality and need here in San Antonio is for people of different faiths to get together, a need for different cultures to be celebrated,” she said. “The Hizmet movement gets into those deep values – compassion justice, peace building, generosity.”
Taylor highlighted the city’s efforts of embracing those values that foster unity and equity. Locally, for example, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative offers educational opportunities for men of color. Through Sister Cities International, San Antonio has found “sister cities” in Namibia and Germany.
After all, she said, diversity is “good” for all communities.
“(Diversity) makes us stronger, not weaker,” she said. “Recognizing and honoring our distinct heritages, but also our common purpose, makes us more united, not less.”
Along with sharing a meal and figuratively joining hand-in-hand in the march for local, national, and international unity, Dialogue and Friendship dinner organizers used the evening to also recognize those who foster work of service, education, and inclusivity in the community with awards.
This year, Inner City Development, which offers the near Westside community educational, recreational, and emergency support through its programs, received the Dialogue Institute Community Service Award. The Institute of Texan Cultures Executive Director Angelica Docog received the Education Award for providing accessible learning opportunities to the community, and The Rivard Report received the Media Award for “affirming different points of view in the community,” Kirk said.
Overcoming racial, political, social, and religious differences would surely lead to a more harmonious global community, especially in the midst of current international unrest, but those at the Dialogue and Friendship Dinner were reminded that maintaining a focus on acceptance in the local setting is just as important.
“Committing to diversity means that as a community we recognize that every San Antonian is a resource for our future,” Taylor said. “Every San Antonian has unique skills and abilities, and every San Antonian can help our community grow and prosper.