Imagine opening the door to a high-end, exclusive restaurant. The whoosh of air-conditioned comfort draws you in as the well-trained hostess welcomes you to the bustling space, full of smiling, well-dressed, and well-fed people. The aromas of garlic and spices waft throughout the room, evidence of the much-loved chef supervising the kitchen.
Now imagine the doorway to a soup kitchen in the local church basement. A line of sun-leathered faces stretches out the door as the crowd waits for bell to ring, signaling that they are allowed to enter and eat. They can stay as long as they behave themselves and don’t touch anything they are not supposed to.
What would it take to get all of these people to willingly come to the same place to eat together?
Picture the people from both dinners, with all of their physical aspects that mark their class status, not only sitting down to eat, but preparing food together, laughing, forging partnerships, making new friends, and expanding their world views over great conversation.
That’s the vision of the Port Cafe, a pop-up, pay-what-you-can community meal based out of Cambridge, MA that is part of a movement founded in collaboration with One World Everybody Eats and Unity Tables. The mission of the Port Cafe is to create fertile ground for organic relationship-building and partnership across American dividing lines, particularly those lines of race and class.
The relationships that are formed at the Port Cafe impact the larger world outside the walls of wherever the Port Cafe happens to be that week. The location one week might be a local community center or church basement, but the next week the meal might take place in the board room of a local law firm, or the lounge of a local university. Through the regular changing of venue, the Port Cafe avoids becoming an event for “those” type of people (no matter who the word “those” might refer to).
The thinking behind the Port Cafe and others like it is both old and new. Of course, the idea of connecting with others through the breaking of bread is anything but new–it’s as old as the oldest human society. What is new, however, is the realization that the isolation and segregation that American culture encourages is making us sick, and that the experience of shared food offers us a chance to heal.
To achieve this dream of beloved community, the Port Cafe strives to create a classism-free environment through a pay structure that honors everyone’s wealth and poverty. Some come in with more money than they need, but also bear a frayed social fabric. Others arrive with little money, but a wide, powerful network of friends, family, and neighbors.
If we can only learn to see that each of us bears both poverty and wealth, we could sit down at the table ready for transformative change.
That’s what we’re striving for, but we are certainly an idealistic work in progress. Four people came together across lines of class and race to found the Port cafe in 2014. Our goal was to create a space for us to get to know all the people in our neighborhood that we would pass on the street, but never seem to meet. We held our inaugural meal in July of 2014 and since then, due to a lack of budget, space, or staff, we’ve only been able to hold eight meals since our founding.
The infrequency of the meals we serve makes our vision of transformative relationships harder to achieve. Meanwhile, the rotating venue makes it difficult to maintain a consistent clientele.
However, despite our limited success in making our meals into transformative experiences in and of themselves, the energy and ideology of the Port Cafe has captured the imaginations of many diverse people from around the community who are eager to connect with us around their own projects or to see how they can contribute to our movement.
Through the organizing that has gone on behind the scenes of the Port Cafe, we have created many strong networks of interpersonal and inter-organizational relationships all around Cambridge. We’ve brought together individuals and groups that had rarely or never previously collaborated, and more than a few partnerships (formal and informal) have emerged out of the organizing of the meals.
One of the most inspiring “wins” is the fact that the Cambridge Community Center, a few miles away, was inspired by the Port Cafe and decided to allocate resources to opening their own pay-what-you-can community meal–the Coast Kitchen!
We’re far from the dream of a classism-free dining experience, but we have begun to catalyze the creativity and need for community that our neighbors bring with them to the table. And that’s cause for celebration.