Laura Johnson works for the United Way of Central Maryland as Senior Vice President and Chief Acceleration Officer. She is also a member of the library’s Racial Equity Alliance and will be a host at the upcoming Longest Table event on Oct 1. She recently shared her experiences at the Longest Table.
How many years have you participated?
Two to date. The first I attended was online during the pandemic with Daryl Davis. I previously had heard him on a podcast and was excited to see him as the featured speaker at the Longest Table. He shares a riveting story about his journey as a musician and his quest to open hearts and minds with members of the Ku Klux Klan. At the Longest Table, I held onto his every word. To be at a virtual table with him and our community was a a profoundly memorable and moving experience.
What made you decide to do it for the first time?
Beyond the opportunity to meet Daryl Davis, I really just love the idea. I love the name: The Longest Table, where anyone is welcome and anyone can have a seat. There’s a place for everyone. I love that we can make the “table” as long as we need to make it.
Have you always been a host?
I have been a host both years. This year, being a member of the Racial Equity Alliance, we’ve had the opportunity to contribute to the “menu” for conversation so I appreciated the invitation for input.
I like to welcome people, to make sure that everyone feels like they belong and that they have a good experience. Hosting is in my DNA from growing up and having big holiday gatherings as well as coordinating major events in my professional line of work, I gain great enjoyment in connecting with others. Being a host for the Longest Table means creating space for sharing, laughing, and elevating our common bonds; honoring our lived experiences.
What do you love about The Longest Table?
There is something so inherently simple and impactful about breaking bread together. It’s like family dinner – where we laugh, cook, tell stories, debate, disagree sometimes, and just enjoy being with each other.
Last year in person, in particular… It just did something amazing for my spirit after sheltering in place for so long. The weather was simply beautiful, with the sun shining on everyone’s faces. I felt a connection, being there in person, and I was not truly prepared for the deep conversations and feelings that they evoked.
I love the experience! We are all so busy, and we don’t always stop to see people and connect – beyond “hey, how are you.” This event allows people to stop for a moment and connect for a moment in time – to SEE each other.
I go back to Daryl Davis, who shared how as a child he was so miffed and confused about racism, after having been the target of a hateful act in a parade. He couldn’t understand the rationale of racism. His story of convincing several klansmen to hang up their hoods was so profound and his ability to find common ground, to help people evolve to a different understanding of our connectedness as humans inspired me.
He was able to hear and be open to different perspectives, then he invited us to do the same. I heard such joy and heartbreak at last year’s event and appreciated the opportunity to be present.
What does the Longest Table have to do with racial equity?
We all come from different places and lived experiences, so this provides a respectful and safe access point to build common ground. It also pushes us to acknowledge the internal work we need to do to heal, to speak up, to do something that builds a community where we all have a “seat at the table.” The incidences of hate in Howard County may not always make the evening news but they’re lurking here in this community. We also know there are so many inequities and disparate outcomes across education, housing, health etc.
Howard County is an amazing place to live, work, and play – but we have much more work to do.
What advice would you have for someone considering coming for the first time?
Listen with an open heart.
Find joy and share joy – however that shows up. There’s something joyous in breaking bread with neighbors.
Take the experience to heart and see what part carries on into our everyday lives. What are the next steps to make Howard County a better place?
Tell us a little about yourself?
I am the new kid on the block at the United Way of Central Maryland, which is a sponsor of the Longest Table. I have a new position responsible for looking at how to accelerate impact. The task is to stop admiring the problem and find ways to take best practices and create something different. I like to think about how, with Covid, we marshaled the best science and funding to make vaccinations a reality as quickly as possible. I have hope that we can apply a similar type of strategy to social issues.
The United Way is an organization that truly has a heart. I work with real people who are truly compassionate and want to help people live their best lives. People truly care.
I am also honored to represent the local chapter of the NAACP. I have held positions on the executive committee as the past education chair for Howard County’s NAACP, and been state co-chair of education committee – Maryland State conference (MSC NAACP). Although it’s technically a volunteer opportunity, it’s an everyday commitment. I believe, though, that no price is too high when you’re fighting for what is right and just.
Do you have any favorite memories or thoughts about the Library?
I come from a family of readers and educators, and the library was always a summer escape. The library is such an anchor for any community. Our library system here in Howard County is one of the most progressive and modern systems that I’ve seen in terms of engagement with community and non-traditional thinking about spaces. There are all those tools in the DIY Center at Elkridge, and sound studios, and, of course, events like the Longest Table.
The library has such beautiful spaces! And, they are true community spaces.
Please join us for dinner and conversation beginning at 5 pm at the Longest Table on October 1 at Howard Community College. Tickets are on sale now for the rain or shine event, with an indoor space available in case of inclement weather.