Communication alum wins Impact award by breaking bread with strangers

Emerald Mills

Emerald Mills has a question for you: Do you want to grab a bite to eat?

Mills is the founder of both Diverse Dining and Turning Tables, initiatives aimed at bringing people together over food. Diverse Dining invites perfect strangers to share a meal with the goal of sparking conversation and connections between people who never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Turning Tables is a restaurant and teaching kitchen that supports budding food entrepreneurs.

Mills, a 2004 UWM graduate who majored in communication, has been recognized for her efforts in various Milwaukee media outlets. This year, she was also recognized by the UWM Alumni Association, who chose her for an Impact Award.

Mills sat down to talk about her work, diversity, and the power of food.

What was your reaction to hearing you got an alumni award?

I was really shocked! I’ve gotten a lot of recognition throughout the city for the work I’ve done, but for me … having UWM recognize the work I was doing was very important and very touching. My college days were very challenging for me. It wasn’t easy at all because I had so much happening around me. I wouldn’t have predicted that I would be here. It was very much a full-circle moment for me, and I’m truly grateful that somebody at UWM was paying attention.

How did you land at UWM for college, and what drew you to your communication major?

For various reasons, I struggled with high school a lot. I didn’t think I would be able to get into a 4-year university, but I really wanted to. I applied to UWM with the help of my advisors and I was able to get in, to my surprise.

My communications teacher at UWM was a great instructor. She would require, before we started, that we check in with ourselves – what we consider meditating now. It really helped us understand different styles of communication and challenges with communication. I thought, I want to do that.

Can you talk about your journey from a being new graduate to the founder of Diverse Dining?

I stayed in the public health field in different roles and positions for almost 20 years after I graduated. I went from a very small nonprofit community organization to a major hospital to another hospital, then to a health department. I was able to learn so much about the different sectors of the work and the different challenges in each of the different places I was going to.

By the time I was at my last position at Children’s Hospital, I was getting frustrated. I felt that, as hard as I was working and hard as other people were working, the needle should have been moving faster to address health issues for minority populations. I thought, what is the barrier? If these resources are available, and these people are willing to work, what is happening that is causing these disparities to stay where they are?

What were the barriers to moving the needle?

I started to realize that Milwaukee has a lot of segregation. There are a lot of barriers to people relating to each other. I grew up in more of a smaller town where everybody knew each other. I wasn’t hypersensitive or hyperaware of some of the things, but after doing the work and knowing that my friends didn’t want to go to certain places, I started to see how segregated and disconnected certain groups of people were from each other.

I began to ask myself the question, how does this affect or relate to the problem that I’m solving with my work? Is racism, is segregation, an underlying factor to the work that I’m doing? And if so, why am I not spending my time addressing that?

So you started putting in the time.

I started to get involved at the very beginning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. I got certified as a trainer and started doing some work within my company. But I still felt like there was something missing. People still weren’t saying, Emerald, let’s go out for lunch together! Or, let’s get our kids together! I didn’t feel like I was building authentic relationships with people. If anything, it was creating more of a disconnect because I felt there was a hyperawareness of a problem that nobody really had a solution for.

I started to think, how do I do this thing and make it more effective? I thought about ways that people were naturally coming together. Where are they hanging out, and where are good examples of what I think we need to see more of in the city? One of the things that caught my eye, is that I felt that people would cross whatever barriers, locations, whatever it may be, for food. People would go eat here, go to this neighborhood for food, if it was a place they wanted to go.

I said, what if I can tie my training, education, and work with restaurants and food? I had a pretty diverse network of people as far as my friends at that time, so I invited them for a birthday party. I put together some questions for them, I found a Vietnamese restaurant in the city, I spoke with the owner, got some history about her background, did some research, and created some activities, and got people together at her restaurant. From there, I started hosting monthly dinners, open to the community every month.

What was the moment you looked around said, this should be a business?

Within the first three months, I started getting an overwhelming response from the people attending the sessions. They asked if I would do these presentations at their jobs. I started doing them, but I had a limited capacity. I decided after a year to do it full-time.

Just recently you started your other food-based initiative, Turning Tables. How has the new venture been going?

Really good! We’re starting our first cohort for food-based entrepreneurs next month. We’ve been in this space since April and opened fully in August. Starting in February, we’ll have evening hours only to be able to do our program during the day. It’s going really well overall.

What do you hope to accomplish via Diverse Dining and Turning Tables?

The mission is to use food to build a more equitable world for us to live in. More specifically, there are alarming statistics around race and racism, segregation, housing, every area. Within the food entrepreneurship arena in Wisconsin, we rank the lowest for minority food-based entrepreneurs who have their own establishments. With Turning Tables, we are providing a community service by helping them directly and specifically start their businesses with the support and knowledge that they need.

At Diverse Dining, we’re helping people get past the initial barrier that they are sometimes thrown by, which is the way we look on the outside. Because of the amount of segregation that exists in Milwaukee, it’s difficult to build authentic relationships with each other without something in the way or some kind of hierarchy. This helps with that.

How do you promote that connection at Diverse Dining?

You can’t sit by anybody that you know when you come in. We give people ground rules about telling stories from their own perspective and not third person. When we have conversations, it really does create an open communication environment and people leave more connected.

What’s the role of food in bringing people together? We hear so often the importance of ‘breaking bread’ with others.

Food automatically helps people lower their defenses. It’s almost like two different people come to the table if there’s food or if there is no food. I think it’s a natural barrier-breaker in and of itself.

The other thing is that there are so many stories from so many people tie back to food. Some cultures weren’t even allowed to come into the state unless they had a restaurant. There is so much of peoples’ stories you can get if you understand their ‘food story.’ You’re curious and you’re open because you’re eating the food or you like the food, and now you’re learning and you’re understanding something that you never would have understood had you not figured it out that way.

You said that you started Diverse Dining because you didn’t see the ‘needle moving’ to address the underlying concerns of racism and segregation when you worked in public health. Do you think this has moved that needle?

I know that it has. It’s still a small trickle. It’s something that has to be embraced by a lot of people, but it has moved the needle.

I also said that I wanted to create a world that I didn’t see, as far as my immediate circle and my neighborhood, and I have that now. I have Brazilian friends; I have Mexican friends. I have Black friends, I have white friends. And I’m talking about friends, not just people I know. By me sharing my world and other people sharing their worlds, we are creating something different. You have different compassion for people that you love and that you know personally than you do for people you don’t really associate with it. I think that’s where it starts. I also know and believe that this work is a long commitment. It’s a long-haul project.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science