It started with a simple gesture.

Find a few strangers, sit down at a common table and talk about some of the most uncomfortable topics that have divided us for decades.

Race, power, politics.

Most of us don't talk about these things with our own family — let alone with people we don't know.

But that's what's missing in these volatile times.

We talk at each other. We talk past each other. But rarely do we talk to each other.

The Beer Summit was established to make that happen.

Back in the summer of 2009, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Boston police for being mistaken as an intruder — breaking into his own house. To keep things from exploding, President Barack Obama (who, coincidentally, was a friend of Gates) invited the professor and the arresting officer to join him and Vice President Biden at the White House for an afternoon chat over beers.

Following that, Global Citizen — the nonprofit headed by Todd Bernstein that organizes the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service — established Philadelphia's first beer summit. It invited folks from throughout the region to gather at a local watering hole, share a few suds and talk about those issues like racism that continue to keep communities apart.

I had the privilege of being at the first beer summit and have been at every one since. I've even served as a moderator at a session or two. Now, several years later, these settings are more meaningful than they've ever been.

With the growing list of victims from police shootings, attacks on police and arguments over which lives matter, our conversations are confrontations. We start at the shouting stage and escalate beyond yelling. Regardless of which side of the argument, reasonable and calm dialogue can't make it above the din.

But, to be honest, we're really not talking at all. Instead, we find ourselves defensive and on edge _ making snap judgments in our interactions that too often result in violence.

At the most recent beer summit, some 100 people from throughout the area gathered to work at the fine art of conversation. To hone that skill, the summit featured an exercise in which two individuals stood face to face with one another.

For each difference between them, they were instructed to take a step back from each other.

One was white. The other black.

Step back.

One was male, the other female.

Step back.

One was of a certain age, the other — different.

Step back.

By the end of the exercise, there were enough differences on the surface alone to put a room's length of distance between the two.

But then, the dialogue began.

It turns out that both grew up in the same neighborhood. They had connections in the same schools. Their children shared common experiences. And for each thing they found in common, they were instructed to take a step toward each other. The more they talked, the closer they became — in proximity and in relationship.

In the comfortable confines of the summit, these facilitated encounters are easy to make happen. The hard work comes when we step outside.

Out there, we're full of un-likeminded people. Having been fed a lifetime of stereotypes that reinforce our differences and keep our divisiveness intact, we're full of distrust. But no one ever said finding common ground was going to be easy. That's why we have to hone our skills in looking deeper than what we see on the surface.

It's ironic that it can take something as basic as a bottle of beer to bring people who might not otherwise have the occasion to sit down with one another to do so in the spirit of understanding and fellowship. At the end, it's simply an invitation extended that begins and ends with a willingness to take the first step.

From there, bridges can be built that can last a lifetime.

— David W. Brown ( is the visiting assistant professor of instruction in the School of Media and Communication at Temple University.

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