At the JAX Chamber’s annual Longest Table community dinner, a cross section of people from across the city get to know each other, building relationships between neighborhoods.

For the past three years, on a mid-November evening, Wanda Willis sat down at a series of tables in the middle of Independent Drive in downtown Jacksonville and had a meal with about 600 strangers of different ages, races and backgrounds.

She and the strangers at her table shared their stories and their hopes and concerns for the community. They talked, they listened, they heard differing opinions and perspectives from their own.

At the JAX Chamber’s annual Longest Table community dinner, Willis got to know a bit more about the people who make up the city. And they got to know more about her.

At least for a night, they became friends.

"It’s one of my favorite events of the year," Willis said. "The sense of community it provides. It’s just genius of the chamber to come up with an opportunity for people from all walks of life, different ZIP codes, to break bread together."

The 2019 event will be 5:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 20. Tickets are free, but required. They go on sale 6 a.m. Wednesday. Last year they were all reserved in a day.

The idea came from Shamika Wright, the chamber’s community outreach director, who heard about a similar breakfast event elsewhere.

"I thought it was a neat concept," she said.

In 2016 she suggested the Longest Table to chamber President and CEO Daniel Davis when they were brainstorming ways "to bring the community together," Wright said. The first event was that November.

This year’s Longest Table will begin to take shape early Nov. 20. Chamber staff and about 75 volunteers will set up a 600-foot stretch of tables on Independent Drive, between Main and Newnan streets, at the foot of the Main Street bridge.

As guests arrive, they will receive color-coded name tags corresponding to their ZIP codes, which ensures they share the meal with a cross-section of Jacksonville residents. Because of potential ZIP overlap into adjacent counties, there might be a few out-of-county folks as well.

The goal is to "foster conversation and build relationships across economic, racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. … [and] create connections that span neighborhoods," according to the chamber.

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Elected officials and business and religious leaders will be on hand to begin introductions at each table and, if needed, prompt conversations. The meal will be donated by area businesses and restaurants.

Wright will roam from one end of the tables to the other to hear conversations develop. Occasionally, she will get pulled into one.

"It is just amazing to see what happens when you bring people together who don’t look like each other," she said. "It warms my heart."

One year the guests included an elderly black woman who "had never had dinner with a white woman before," until she sat at the Longest Table, Wright said. "I would have never thought that was possible."

Thinking back to that night, she said, "still gets me a little emotional."

The businesses and restaurants that donate food not only get to participate in a major community event, but get public exposure and potential new customers.

Willis, who lives off Hodges Boulevard between Beach and Butler boulevards, has been in Jacksonville for 25 years. "I consider myself a community steward," she said, and as such "wants to hear the voices of other people." That’s why she is a regular guest at the Longest Table.

Resident Amy Carnegie wants to become a regular.

She is a fan of the concept, but so far has either had other things going on the day of the event or was unable to get a ticket. The notion of a cross-section of people sharing an outdoor meal and a conversation was something she just had to experience, she said.

"You’re not sitting next to someone you know," she said. "People talking to each other, getting different perspectives."

Such conversations can "soften up" people with even the most hard-line opinions, opening them up to hear other viewpoints, she said. They’ll say to themselves, "’That’s not my experience, but I’ll listen,’" she said.

Carnegie is so determined to attend this year that she planned to set her alarm for 5:45 a.m. Wednesday to be ready when tickets sales begin at 6 a.m. She has asked friends to do the same.

"I’m getting up at the crack of dawn," she said. "I am going to be first."

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109

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