This is what happens when we step outside our silo

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On Oct. 17, I invited over two cousins who had arrived from Cuba within the last year, two friends from the Global Shapers Miami Hub, and a coworker from 14ymedio to dinner at our home, where my mother treated us all to her infamous frijoles colorados and platanitos fritos.

Three worlds – family, friends, and colleagues – were coming together for #MyMiamiStory, an annual campaign from The Miami Foundation that brings together Miamians from all walks of life to connect and talk about how they experience their city.

The differences among those present were stark. Language was a barrier. Two spoke very little English. One’s Spanish was only conversational. Educational experiences varied. Two attended elite Northeast universities. Three are enrolled at Miami-Dade College. Professional backgrounds were diverse. One works in a major corporation. Another is working at a local factory.

We live all over the city. Two in South Dade. Four in Tamiami/Westchester. One in Brickell. Each arrived to Miami in different ways. One was smuggled through Central America by coyotes. Another one came by plane to pursue a better university education. And a third crossed through the Mexican border.

If not for that dinner invitation, my guests wouldn’t have met each other. Each of us live in our own silo – that comfortable spot where we understand everything around us. It takes real effort and discomfort to step outside of it, even just for a night.

Going away to college in DC was my first time really breaking out. I was born in Cuba and moved to Tamiami with a loud Cuban family. I went to John A. Ferguson High School, where most of my friends were Cuban-American. Everyone I grew up with looked like me.

In college I struggled finding a balance between being proud of my heritage and beliefs and being open to learn from other people’s cultures and experiences.

That #MyMiamiStory dinner was a smaller version of that experience. Some had to speak in a language they didn’t feel comfortable with. Others were challenged to share their personal aspirations, even if they seemed far from being achieved. For some, it was the first time they had a conversation with a person who was born in another part of the U.S. For others, it was the first time they heard a personal account of the risk Cuban immigrants take to arrive in Miami. Slang words, idioms, and pop culture references had to be explained. Other times, though, all they needed was a glance at each other’s face – their grin, their eye roll.

The goal was not to highlight our individual accomplishments, or to network for professional advancement, or even to organize for an advocacy campaign. We were simply sitting around a regular table having a regular conversation.

In Miami, it is difficult for us to have these types of conversations with people who are different from us. We live in an overwhelmingly Hispanic community. Our neighborhoods are divided across ethnic and socioeconomic lines. We commute to work every day in the safe space of our cars instead of confronting people who are different from us in a subway car. Our city is so spread out that distances from one point to another are large.

That means we have to take very deliberate steps to build meaningful relationships with those who are different from us. If we don’t, it will be even more difficult for our Miami to transform into the more equitable, cohesive and just community we all want.

So for me, that has meant surrounding myself with people through the Global Shapers Miami Hub who actively seek out opportunities to go beyond what is comfortable. It has meant volunteering with organizations like the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) to learn about the youth experience in communities from Miami Gardens to Homestead. It has meant developing a faith community at St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest but also visiting other churches, mosques and synagogues around town. It has meant taking a class at Miami-Dade College with students who recently arrived in our community and listening to their powerful stories.

These are simple and small acts. They do not require me to join a large civic group or write a grant proposal or attend a policy meeting. All I have to do is show up, to accept an invitation to break my own silos.

We can all break silos by doing something as simple as going out or attending a cultural event in a new neighborhood, or stopping to ask the concierge at the building where we work about his or her family, or attending an open market and asking a local farmer if we can visit their farm in Homestead.

I share my experience in the hopes that we can support each other in doing more of that. Miami will be a better place when we all do.