Since On the Table debuted in 2014, thousands of people from across the Chicago region have gathered to forge new relationships and foster fresh discussions about making real differences in their neighborhoods.
“We’re creating a social fusion reaction,” said Trust president and CEO Terry Mazany. “By compressing so many people together on a single day, good things are bound to happen.”
Now, through a brand-new initiative—the On the Table Learning Symposium—the Trust is spreading those good things to communities around the country.
More than two dozen community foundation and civic leaders from 25 states and Canada gathered in Chicago to take part in On the Table conversations firsthand, learn how to adapt the model for their own regions and develop connections for continuing collaboration.
The symposium was hosted by the Trust and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of its commitment to investing in civic innovations that help cities create a culture of information and engagement.
The day’s sessions kicked off with a session on the importance of engaging stakeholders, led in part by Trust Executive Committee member Mary Richardson-Lowry.
“You have to identify champions on your boards—people who are advocating on your behalf when you’re not in the room,” Richardson-Lowry told participants. “You cannot lift alone. You have to identify key players, both vertically and horizontally.”
Other sessions addressed the On the Table strategy and model; discussed how On the Table has affected the Trust brand and mission; suggested ways to engage, recruit and inspire the public; and delineated the many resources available to communities that would like to begin hosting similar events.
During one especially impactful session, participants who had already held their own events inspired by On the Table shared their experiences.
“Don’t be on script; be on message,” was the advice of Jamie Ellerton, principal of the Toronto-based public relations agency Conaptus Ltd. and project lead for an event called 1000 Dinners Toronto. In other words: focus more on the message than the medium.
1000 Dinners TO saw more than 3,500 participants engaged in more than 500 mealtime discussions. As Ellerton said, “People bought into the imperfection of it all. We gave the hosts the ability to hold the dinner they wanted to. Trusting people was our strength.”
Mazany agreed. “There’s a curious phrase I learned in business school called ‘minimal critical specifications,’” he said. “You provide just the bare bones of structure so that people can infuse and inform it with their own creativity, design, values and purpose.”
“It boils down to three trusts: Trust the people, trust the process, trust the outcomes.”
One symposium participant attested to the power of community convening to help transform not only a community, but also the sponsoring organization.
“We are 92 years old, and we were nearly invisible for most of that time,” said Tracy Cutler, vice president of communications and donor cultivation for the Lancaster County Community Foundation in Pennsylvania. “I heard about this model about a year ago, and it’s helping us reintroduce ourselves to the community through something we’re calling At The Table. Our goal was 50 tables, and right now we’re at over 100.”
After hearing stories like those, participant Adam Emrick, planning director of the City of Conway in South Carolina, was more excited than ever about adapting the On the Table model for his town.
“One of my biggest difficulties is civic engagement. Harder still is reaching the underprivileged communities who often have no say in public leadership,” Emrick said.
“The On the Table model may allow us to reach all segments of our community. It’s not just about the voices that will be heard; it’s also their knowledge that they’ve been empowered to make a difference.”
“Instead of trying to improve lives from the outside, this model can empower communities to improve from within.”
Over the coming months, the Trust will continue to share insights and strategic advice with this cohort of civic leaders interested in deepen civic engagement and elevating community voice.