Two years ago, when Emerald Mills brought a group of friends together for an evening of conversation and pho, she told them it was to celebrate her birthday. But the dinner at the Wauwatosa Vietnamese restaurant Hue was actually a ruse concocted to gauge interest for an endeavor she later launched called Diverse Dining.
Once she let her friends in on the secret, Mills says they greenlighted this ongoing bridge-building experience that cultivates healthy conversation about race and diversity over meals from different cultures. Mills says color “didn’t come up in her lens” when she was growing up in Zion, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border. But once she moved to Milwaukee her junior year in high school, she became more aware of racial disparities. Diverse Dining was a seed at that point, watered and fertilized by her years studying communications at UW-Milwaukee and embarking on a career in public health. It was impossible not to see the racial disconnect. “One of the things not being talked about was the impact of segregation and the divide and how we can resolve those issues,” she says.
A personal event made that even clearer. Mills took over raising three of her sister’s children, one of whom is biracial. Her young nephew made her think more deeply about racial identity and self-esteem, and the idea of Diverse Dining took shape. Mills takes a thoughtful, story-telling approach to each dinner. One evening at The Tandem, for instance, she started the conversation by engaging diners in a game featuring questions about the Underground Railroad, which had a stop near the restaurant. Driving business to a traditionally marginalized community, as was the case with a dinner at Sherman Phoenix on 35th Street and Fond du Lac Avenue, is also crucial to Diverse Dining’s message of connectivity.
“Food has the power to bring people together,” Mills says, paraphrasing one of the late food writer Anthony Bourdain’s lessons. Even though COVID-19 has changed how we dine – and put the organization’s in-person gatherings on hold – Mills believes cultivating courage, compassion and connection, which are all part of Diverse Dining’s mission statement, can happen in many aspects of daily life beyond restaurants, whether that’s shopping for groceries or riding public transportation. “We don’t have to go far to see all the issues happening in our city. Reach out. Go after the relationships that challenge you the most.”
Emerald Mills samples food from Taste of Africa and Mister Bar-B-Que, two dining start-ups, at Upstart Kitchen.