Sandy Springs’ civic dinners, a series of virtual get-togethers with residents to help foster more dialogue on race, have highlighted the city’s diversity but also showed it still has progress to make when it comes treating all ethnic groups the same.

“(Attendees) appreciated the opportunity to meet new people, express their opinion and the opportunity to express a very sensitive topic,” city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said.

Kraun provided an update on the civic dinners, which kicked off in July and involve eight to 10 residents each, at the Sandy Springs City Council’s Nov. 3 work session, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been 44 dinners with 341 attendees, with each event having an assigned note taker. The dinners have been conducted in both English and Spanish and have been boosted by diverse marketing and evaluations committees.

“Three dinners were entirely in Spanish,” Kraun said. “For the most part, the dinners were diverse. … We did a lot of outreach into our apartment communities, that even though they were renters, we valued them as part of our community as well.”

An initiative started by Mayor Rusty Paul, the dinners included themes such as “inclusion,” “invitation” and “platform.” Attendees were asked about what each of those words meant as part of the dinners’ conversations. Affordable housing, a hot topic in Sandy Springs, especially in its north end, was also discussed.

Kraun’s presentation included several attendees’ comments.

When asked what inclusion means to you, one attendee said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to the dance.”

In another discussion, another said, “Be less judgmental.”

Another attendee called the dinners “a great way to get out of our silos, learn from each other and open our minds to new perspectives.”

Kraun said the city plans to continue to offer more diverse programming, such as its 2020 MLK Day event. It’s also planning more civic engagement programs, included expanding the citizens on patrol and police academy programs and building a network of mentors in each of the city’s target industries.

Paul and council members were not allowed to participate in the dinners since the city did not want attendees to feel pressured by their presence.

“I will take a diversity and inclusion committee finding to you,” Paul told the council. “I hope to have that done by January. … This is not a one-off (situation). There will be more civic dinners. Hopefully, some of these will be in person.”

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With the work session and subsequent council meeting taking place on Election Day, Paul was asked after the meeting why both weren’t rescheduled for another night.

“The first November meeting typically falls on election night and we try to minimize the agenda, but historically we have met on when council meeting night fell on Election Day,” he said.

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