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Season 3, Episode 6
Lilly Weinberg is the Program Director of Community and National Initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation supports projects that foster informed and engaged communities, which are essential for a healthy democracy. One of those programs is On the Table, an initiative aimed at getting a community involved and talking to each other face-to-face over a meal about the issues they care about. On The Table was started by the Chicago Community Trust in 2014 and has grown into a national initiative through the support of the Knight Foundation.
Kathryn Dennis is the President of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia (CFCG). In 2018, CFCG was one of 10 community foundations across the U.S. participating in On the Table. The foundation reports that over 5000 people participated in nearly 600 On the Table conversations in offices, churches, parks, restaurants, homes and schools across the Macon-Bibb County region.
In a time that feels more partisan than ever, how do we bring people together? Maybe it’s as simple as actually bringing people together to talk over a meal. That’s the idea behind the On the Table initiative. Lilly Weinberg from the Knight Foundation talks with Kathryn Dennis from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia about how Macon, Georgia implemented On the Table in their community.
The concept of On the Table is simple: bring people together over a meal to talk about the issues they care about. With the help of the Knight Foundation, the Community Foundation of Central Georgia implemented this initiative in Macon, GA last year, which brought together over 5000 people across nearly 600 tables. Kathryn talks with Lilly about how they put together the program and the success of those conversations.
The clear success of this initiative speaks to the community’s need and desire for these kinds of in-person conversations. The tables brought together friends, neighbors, strangers, government members, and constituents. It also involved a level of intentionality to make sure the voices of community members who often feel disenfranchised are heard. This meant hosting tables at local jails, making sure there was a table in every zip code, and having Spanish-speaking tables in Spanish-speaking communities.
While there is clear value in meeting with people face-to-face and understanding their perspective, even if you disagree, On the Table is not just about the conversation but about what happens next, which is up to the participants. Kathryn talks about what Macon’s citizens decided to do following their On the Table conversations.
It’s so simple, it’s complicated: One table at a time
- 00:00 – Cold open: Kathryn Dennis talks about how the hardest part was getting people to understand that it was a simple concept: people have a conversation over mealtime.
- 00:26 – Sandy introduces Kathryn Dennis, Lilly Weinberg, and the On the Table initiative.
- 01:36 – Lilly talks about what On the Table is and how it fits into the Knight Foundation’s dedication to an informed and engaged community. She emphasizes that these talks are not a complaint fest but are about community members coming together over a meal and having solutions-oriented conversations about the future of their community.
- 03:49 – Lilly asks Kathryn why she’s so committed to this initiative and Kathryn talks about her long-standing belief in the power of sitting down with people and talking for finding solutions and getting stuff done. She also talks about how On the Table provides an opportunity to engage more people than the “usual suspects” who regularly voice their opinions. On the Table can reach those who may feel disenfranchised or left out of the conversation. She gives examples of hosting On the Table talks at homeless shelters, rec centers, and at the local jail and being sure to have an On the Table host in every zip code.
- 06:12 – “It’s about intentionality, you really have to go above and beyond to make sure that you’re including all community members” from inmates to new immigrants. Lilly talks about how reaching these groups requires intentionality and going out of our way to make sure voices are heard.
- 06:49 – Kathryn talks about how hosting tables works and how Macon-Bibb first started with “super hosts,” such as local schools, libraries, and churches, who hosted public tables for anyone to sign up for. One of the public libraries held tables with city leaders and Spanish-speaking community members involved in a multi-lingual experience. The community foundations reached out through calls and speaking engagements and ran ads through the local media to call attention to this opportunity and ask people to sign up to host.
- 09:16 – Ultimately, they nearly 5000 people participated across 600 tables, half of which were public tables open to anyone and half were private tables with invited guests such as county commissioners meeting with constituents. Relationships that were sometimes adversarial could come sit together and have meaningful conversations face to face where you can understand where the other person was coming from even if you disagree.
- 10:38 There’s something special about sitting at the same table, making eye contact, and breaking bread together. It changes the power dynamic that exist in traditional government meetings.
There is an appetite for conversation
- 11:36 – Kathryn talks about how people loved the idea of being able to sit down with people and talk, both among friends and strangers. Tables were listed by location and time, but the initiative was most successful when the table had a specific topic to get people started talking. Topics included issues like food insecurity, the arts, abroad educations, mobility access in public places, etc. One popular topic was “What do you say when you’re bragging about Macon?” Another one was “If you only had $100 and one day, what would you do to better your community?” This got people thinking about how it doesn’t just take money to do something, it’s about what we can do as a community to move forward.
- 14:04 – “What happens next is up to you”: It’s not about telling someone else what needs to be done, it’s about civic engagement and the power that citizens have to make a change in their communities.
- 15:22 – Over 5000 people came out for On the Table, which is close to 4% of Macon’s population. But what happens next? Lilly asks Kathryn what kind of impact has she actually seen in the community? Kathryn talks about how even a year later, people are still talking about their own On the Table experiences, showing how it has really made an effect on people. Data from On the Table has also affected strategic plans for the local government and the community foundation so that those plans are reflective of the concerns that were expressed in the On the Table groups.
We have more in common than not
- 19:41 – Lilly mentions that there was pushback for On the Table that asked whether this was just a conversation or something more. One amazing thing is the data that you can get from these conversations because it can be very hard to get good data from the community. It is very valuable to have thousands of community members to tell you what they want.
- 20:53 – Kathryn talks about how the philanthropic community has been using this data when focusing their efforts. After the Macon On the Table program, the foundation gave out $20,000 worth of conversation to action grants: $15,000 across 17 mini grants to provide seed capital and one larger grant for $5000 to an organization to help create a resource guide for community members to find and locate services.
- Other initiatives included a laundry day program that offered free laundry plus the opportunity to have On the Table-type conversations with others, the installation of a portable toilet downtown for the city’s homeless population, and young people choosing to adopt a street.
- 25:35 – This project has also informed the strategy for some foundations: Now that they have heard from their community about their community’s needs they can realign their efforts to address those issues.
- 26:37 – Lilly talks about how the Knight Foundation wasn’t sure how succiessful this initative would be when they originally invested in it. It was 2016 following a major national election and the country was very divided.
- Through projects like On the Table, they’ve found that even though the country is divided and more dependent on technology, there is a deep desire to have these in person conversations at a local level. Perhaps it is exactly this division that creates our appetite for it and “we know in our hearts that we have more in common than not.”
- 28:38 – Kathryn and Lilly wrap up the conversation.
- 29:25 – Outro: Support a public school classroom project, invest in LED lightbulbs, and watch our latest Instagram story
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