CARLOS FRÍAS, Miami Herald

Ana Sanchez of The Children's Trust serves food at the Connect Miami event.
Ana Sanchez of The Children’s Trust serves food at the Connect Miami event. Bryan Cereijo Bryan Cereijo

Color-coded place mats in red, white and blue turned lunch into a social experiment.

No cafeteria cliques, here. Call it an icebreaker — for an entire city.

The United Way of Miami-Dade hosted a pot luck with more than 130 people at its Shenandoah headquarters Monday to kick off Connect Miami, a social movement running through the end of May to encourage South Floridians step out of their comfort zones and connect with neighbors.

It’s one of more than 60 events — dubbed the 10 Days of Connection — happening around South Florida with a simple goal: to bridge the gap hardened by a divisive political climate and the daily routine that keeps us in our comfort zones, the founders said.

“We’re a diverse community, but we get caught in our own comfort zone, in our own little bubble,” said United Way COO Claudia Grillo, who made baked ziti and her family meatball recipe for the pot luck. “If we all took an extra 10 seconds with one another, wouldn’t that make a difference?”

So on Monday, the leaders of the United Way — one of five founding partners, along with the Miami Herald — made the first gesture. They invited employees from the businesses on their campus off Coral Way to bring a dish (better if it reflects their heritage) to share at lunch with others.

And then, to ensure friends wouldn’t huddle with friends, they color-coded the seats to inspire interactions between people who may have been used to seeing one another parking and heading to work but never saying more than hello.

Shairy Gonzalez, who works for United Way, turned from her plate of pasta and salad to chat with Elisa Agostinho.

“It was two years of sharing an elevator and saying hi, but we really didn’t get to talk until now,” Gonzalez said.

“How could you not want to be part of something like this?” Agostinho added.

The idea for Connect Miami started less than three months ago but quickly drew more than 100 different local partner companies that are putting on a wide range of events, all listed on ConnectMiami.org. There are historical tours of Liberty City, Wynwood and a boat tour of Stiltsville and the Cape Florida Lighthouse led by Miami’s leading historian Paul George on Saturday. There are discussions of everything from women’s treatment in the criminal justice system to Miami’s art and music subcultures. There are book clubs and supper clubs with Syrian refugees and health classes and even Facebook Live events for those who can’t make an event in person.

Monday’s lunch was just the beginning. Folding tables were set up with a feast, from meatballs to arroz con pollo, from Caesar salads to quinoa, homemade cookies to flan. It made the perfect setting to get people of different backgrounds to have a literal seat at the table.

“People can be like ships passing in the night, and it shouldn’t be,” said Garnet Esters of the Children’s Trust, who sat for lunch for the first time with employees from the United Way and The Miami Foundation.

“This is a really small big city, and you can fall into your cliques,” said Karina Alvarez, sitting across from Esters. “We can be more intentional.”

 Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias
Click here to see the original story.