Courageous conversations: The Breaking Bread Village aims to bridge community divides in Michigan

'We can still speak with respect and come away with a positive experience'

Photo of Angela Mulka

One of the only organizations of its kind in Michigan, The Breaking Bread Village, created by Erin Patrice at the start of the pandemic, is gaining attention by hosting conversations aimed to create positive change and empower the mind with some of the most high profile diversity educators in the field.

Discussing complex issues like racial inequality, politics and gender inclusivity can be difficult, but the conversations are critical and happening at The Breaking Bread Village nonetheless.

At The Breaking Bread Village, Patrice, who is the creator and host, aims to engage in thoughtful dialogue with real people from all different races, backgrounds and cultures to demonstrate that we are all more similar than once believed to be.

“I have a big picture of what I want to see in the world I live in,” Patrice said. “And, I know that I can’t light the whole world on fire, but what I can do is light a little torch in my space. That’s what I’m trying to do with The Breaking Bread Village. I’m trying to light that fire in my environment and help the people around me better see the other people around them.”

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Patrice engages in these courageous conversations that can be deeply emotional for people because they bring up people’s beliefs on what is right and wrong.

“The reason why folks avoid politics is because sometimes you find out things about ostensibly nice people that you can’t unhear,” Christina Greer, who is the associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told Forbes. “Just imagine, if you think you have a working relationship with someone, and they tell you that they support the president because he believes in closing borders. If you’re a family of immigrants, that could totally change how you work with your manager or how you feel like your manager views you.”

News of violence and discrimination is inherently traumatic, particularly for members of the black community who experience it at disproportionately higher rates. When people of various races, backgrounds and experiences enter into conversation, layers of difference can add even more tension to the dialogue, according to CNBC.

The Breaking Bread Village attempts to dissolve this tension by using two “very powerful tools”: listening and empathy, according to Patrice. And, she has seen success in doing so.

“I engage in different conversations with people that might not necessarily talk to me, or may not have their voices heard elsewhere,” Patrice said. “For example, I’ve spoken to a few white supremacists and we’ve been able to have really good conversations through empathy and transparency, and I appreciate that. The Breaking Bread Village is a platform that allows people to talk without judgement. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to bridge certain gaps, because I make it very clear to guests that I’m not here to ambush. I really, truly want to understand the why and how behind their beliefs.”

One of the most positive experiences Patrice has had so far in her year-long journey with The Breaking Bread Village was going to the home of one of the first American educators on diversity, 87-year-old Jane Elliott.

Known for her “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” exercise, which she first conducted with her third-grade class in 1968, Elliott recently sat down with Patrice to “break bread” and discuss the state of our nation today. Elliott is excited to see what gaps The Breaking Bread Village continues to bridge between people who may believe they are too different from each other to ever agree on anything.

“I was invited to go visit Dr. Jane Elliott, which was amazing,” Patrice said. “It’s so interesting because she is looked at as a celebrity, but I was with her sitting on her back porch and she was just such a regular person that resonated with me because of the passion she has for change. What I loved about it was that we didn’t agree on everything, but we were able to talk about it with love and hope. It was like talking to an old friend, very chill yet powerful and something that I will never forget. I adore her.”

You can watch archived conversations, including the one with Elliott, on The Breaking Bread Village’s website. Other conversations feature topics like abortion, gun control, being a Muslim in America and much more. The conversations are live streamed to Facebook and YouTube concurrently.

Previously working with Adoption Option, as a mediator for youth and adults and as a life coach, Patrice has plenty of public speaking credentials. She also spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in Midland last summer and has worked in both school systems and the juvenile justice system with at-risk youth.

“I believe what you put out comes back to you, and I believe that’s what has been happening with people seeing things online about The Breaking Bread Village and responding to them in a positive way," she said.

The Breaking Bread Village is underneath the umbrella of another one of Patrice’s efforts called 4 Steps 2 the Sun, which is a community outreach organization focused on “bringing voice to those that need help being heard, giving those blinded by misunderstandings the sight to see otherwise and light and love to those trapped in the dark.”

So, how did Patrice come up with the idea to start The Breaking Bread Village?

“It was the pandemic, and being a person that gives talks in schools and different organizations, I was missing the connection to human life," Patrice said. "I always tell people that having courageous conversations is not unique. I didn’t start anything that was new. But, for me, I always felt like even the conversations that people would have came from a place of judgement or something they related to already. For me, I wanted to go outside that box. I didn’t want something that was necessarily comfortable for me or necessarily something I relate to. Because some stuff, I have no clue about.

"I think that’s what I find to be different about my organization. I feel like that even though we may have strong different stances, we can still speak with respect and come away with a positive experience," she continued. "I never say you have to change your opinion, but look at it from both perspectives.”

Patrice represents The Breaking Bread Village at various events across the nation. She does many speaking engagements in regard to why it’s important to foster transparent and empathetic conversations.

In the future, The Breaking Bread Village plans to host its own events in the Midland community. 

“You can separate as much as you want, but we are literally all in this together,” Patrice said. “And, until we realize that and listen to each other and have some empathy, it’s not going to get any better.”

To create and sustain a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, conversations about these complex issues have to take place. If these conversations aren’t happening in your space, it may be beneficial to start them.

You can keep up with Erin Patrice and The Breaking Bread Village on Facebook.

If you believe in the work The Breaking Bread Village is doing, you can donate to it here