In a reversal of standard protocol at middle-school cafeterias everywhere, diners filing into the Chaska Event Center on Tuesday evening were instructed to sit with strangers who didn't look like them.

"Please sit with someone you've never met and, based on looks alone, you believe to be very different from you," Marnita Schroedl told them.

By the end of the evening, the hope was that many of the 220 people attending the free community dinner — more than a third of whom were people of color — had found they had more in common than they might have thought.

The event, hosted by the city of Chaska and Eastern Carver County Community Education, was part of an effort to strengthen ties after a series of race-related episodes in the past year demonstrated that relationships in the community could use some work.

"I believe in developing community unity," said Dontá Hughes, a black Chaska resident with three kids in high school. "That doesn't mean I keep looking for problems. I've got to be part of the solution."

The event, called "Engage! A feast and conversation about getting involved," was organized by Marnita's Table, a Minneapolis-based organization founded by Schroedl that works with cities, businesses and other groups to encourage interaction across lines of race, class, age and other demographic divisions.

Residents have been riven by discord since last spring, when some parents in the Eastern Carver County School District reported that their children had experienced racist harassment in the schools. School officials apologized and beefed up the district's equity program.

Opponents of the equity program, contending that it put white and Christian students at a disadvantage, staged a campaign linking it with the district's November referendum even though the equity program was primarily funded by the state. Two of the referendum's three parts were rejected by voters, forcing the district to find $14 million to cut from its budget.

A couple of days before Tuesday's dinner, a video posted on the TikTok phone app, believed to be filmed by two Chaska High School students, showed a teen wearing blackface. The video has since reportedly been taken down, but it exacerbated community tensions.

The racism in the schools is "heartbreaking," said Tron Miles, a Chaska High School graduate who added that he had experienced it himself. "I'm trying to be more involved in the community — I want to get out and do something."

Tuesday's community dinner featured African deli food and soup, as well as taco and baked-potato bars. Organizers reached out through a variety of channels for an ethnically diverse crowd, and the Event Center entrance was papered with lists of local organizations to join, ranging from Ducks Unlimited to Friends of the Library.

Schroedl used exercises designed to get attendees to mingle and see each other in new ways. She directed people to group themselves by age, from baby boomers to Generation Z.

"Anybody notice anything? The boomers are all white," she said, noting that "increasingly brown" younger groups would one day be the community's leaders. "This group has to be intentionally reaching out to this group, because if you're not, you're breaking down as a community."

Then she helped people discover different kinds of commonalities, directing them to gather according to personal interests (arts, cooking, physical activity), communication preferences (phone, e-mail, text), diurnal habits (morning person or night person) and civic engagement (those already involved and those who would like to be).

Participants later were encouraged to talk with their table mates, then report on what they had learned.

"It was really cool that we don't have to guess by people's looks what they think," said Alexandra Mendizabal of Chaska.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583