You’re sitting in front of your computer, staring at a stranger’s face. You’ve never met the person you see on your screen before, but you know that the two of you live in the Milwaukee area. And, as you start talking, you realize that you have other things in common, too. You share a favorite coffee shop, maybe. Or a conviction that this year the Packers are finally going to make it to the Super Bowl again. And you’re both interested in breaking down some of the racial barriers that have long been a fixture of life in Milwaukee.
That’s the idea behind Kin, a project developed by Dominique Samari that pairs up Milwaukeeans of different races and provides them with conversation prompts designed to help them forge connections across the city’s deeply segregated communities.
Samari – who is co-founder of P3 Development, a consulting group with a focus on equity and inclusion – says that she likes to tackle a personal project each year that relates to a subject she’s curious about. In 2019, she decided that she would ask Milwaukeeans of all races and backgrounds a series of questions about belonging.
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At first, she reached out to people she already knew, and the talks were loosely structured – “less of an interview and more of a conversation.” But she soon realized that many of the people she spoke with appreciated the conversations just as much as she did, and that they seemed interested in connecting with others. “People want to develop authentic relationships, but they say that gets harder as they get older,” she says. “And that they want to develop authentic relationships across race, but they’ve found it difficult to do that in this city.”
So she decided to launch a second phase of the project (which she was referring to simply as her Belonging Project at the time but has since evolved into Kin), a community-wide conversation series that anyone could take part in. “The only rules are that you can’t talk about race or politics,” she says. “Because racial disparity is so pervasive in Milwaukee, we talk about it all the time. And it’s difficult to talk about. I wanted the people to develop authentic relationships first before they try talking about it.”
To date, Samari has matched up about 27 pairs of conversational partners. The participants are encouraged to talk to their partners as often as they’d like, and many of them say that their conversations so far have been invaluable.
“We both cried,” one anonymous participant told Samari. “And I never cry in front of people.”
“My partner’s vulnerability has allowed me to be more vulnerable,” another said. “I realize that I do not usually let myself be very vulnerable and I don’t have these types of conversations very often in my life.”
Heartened by messages like these, and by interest from the African American Leadership Alliance of Milwaukee and community development leader Genyne Edwards (co-founder of P3 Development with Samari), Samari intends to continue working on a third phase of the project. In fact, if the project is a success, she’s interested in developing an app that would allow even more Milwaukeeans to participate.
“For me, the primary outcome would be to start to build connections across race – everything else flows from that,” Samari says of what she wants to achieve with the app. But she also hopes that some of the participants will find new friends, or realize that it’s OK to allow themselves to be vulnerable around other people.