What is really important to Philadelphians? What do they want to know about their neighbors, hash out, resolve? Where do they find meaning from each other, from their community, their city?
On May 23, at tables all across the region, more than 100 disparate groups of Philadelphians will shine a light on these questions, answering the complexity that is Philadelphia in the same manner that problems have been solved for generations: by breaking bread and hashing it out.
On The Table Philly—organized by The Philadelphia Foundation and The Knight Foundation—is a daylong series of meals intended to provide a glimpse into Philadelphians of all populations and passions. Hosts—from church groups to politicians to businesses and individuals—will choose a topic and invite around 10 guests per meal to talk about it. It can be about anything, and the list so far is varied. But they are, in essence, all about one thing: bettering Philadelphia.
“This is about people getting together to reflect on our places individually and collectively in our community,” says Pedro Ramos, president of The Philadelphia Foundation. “It’s about capturing experiences, aspirations, senses of opportunity from a subjective perspective, in terms of people’s own experiences.”
“This is about people getting together to reflect on our places individually and collectively in our community,” says Pedro Ramos, president of the Philadelphia Foundation. “It’s about capturing experiences, aspirations, senses of opportunity from a subjective perspective, in terms of people’s own experiences.”
The day of gatherings is essentially a continuous conversation about Philadelphia, among Philadelphians. It is the first such effort of The Philadelphia Foundation, which under Ramos is more deliberately looking for ways to encourage civic engagement. The open-ended nature of On The Table allows a look at Philadelphia beyond the statistics and the surveys, to determine what residents think really matters. It could provide a window into the types of funding the organization will provide in the near term; rather than picking a topic and asking for grant proposals, for example, the dinners might reveal a need that the Foundation didn’t anticipate.
“We saw this as an opportunity to inform our civic engagement work, with a level of grass roots input that we might not otherwise be able to pull off,” Ramos says.
The Philly program is based on Chicago’s On The Table, launched by the Chicago Community Trust, that city’s largest community foundation, in 2014. (Philly is one of 10 cities in which the Knight Foundation is funding On The Tables.) That first year, the Trust brought 10,000 Chicagoans to dinners around the region for directed conversations about issues facing the city; last year more than 55,000 people participated. The experiences of the three Chicago dinners has impacted how the Philadelphia Foundation unrolled its On The Table series this year.
In particular, Ramos says, they made a deliberate effort to recruit hosts from all over the city (and region), even in neighborhoods—like North Philly—that are often left out of these sorts of events. “In Chicago, they got to a big scale and then were trying to figure out how to be more inclusive,” Ramos says. “We said from the start, we want to be in neighborhoods and the suburbs. We’re trying to get a good cross-section of the community. Then we can scale up from there.”
The deliberateness has paid off. Phoebe Coles, whose Community Marketing Concepts was hired to solicit hosts, says more than 100 people and organizations have signed on from all over the city—including 30 in Center City, 19 in North Philly, 13 in Northwest Philly and 18 in surrounding counties. They are hosting dinners, and breakfasts, and lunches; some, including I Heart Radio, are throwing several different dinners at once, inviting dozens to participate.
Themes for the meals are varied, but Coles says the greatest number are what she broadly categorizes as “community” and what it means. For example, the African American Chamber of Commerce plans to talk about how black-owned businesses impact their communities. The Center for Relationships wants to discuss ways to increase support for mental health issues in Philadelphia. And a group of mostly ministers calling themselves New CORE (New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity) are hosting, in West Philadelphia, an event with a Mennonite Church that wants to move to the city, and is seeking help navigating how to integrate into the neighborhood.
“People are really focused on questions about what’s impacting their community, and how they connect to that,” Coles says.
Other groups have signed on to talk about education—like the Vetri Community Partnership, which is hosting a meal with 8th graders at a local school, and a group in Point Breeze that is having an after school event with students and parents—or art, or business. Even Councilman Allan Domb is holding a dinner, to get feedback from his constituents on taxes. The Citizen and Urban Affairs Coalition are co-hosting a happy hour to delve into some issues around race in Philadelphia.
Ramos says the organizers are “actively encouraging hosts not to let them turn into complaint sessions.” But what they discuss has been left intentionally vague, to see what people, left to their own devices, discuss together. “We don’t live in bucketed issues,” Ramos says. “The wonks among us talk about issues and organize them into buckets. But we experience quality of life in a more holistic way. We want to know what people want to talk about.”
How The Philadelphia Foundation will use this information is still up in the air. (“If we knew what we were going to learn, we could skip some of the steps,” Ramos notes.) The hope is that many of the hosts will designate “storytellers” to report back to On The Table what was discussed, how it was discussed, and what ideas came out of it. That information will be collected and reported out in some way, though Ramos says he’s not yet sure what form it will take. “It’s inevitable that the ‘a-has’ are coming,” Ramos says. “We just don’t know what those are yet.”
In Chicago, the Chicago Community Trust—in partnership with The Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois—issued a lengthy “impact report” cataloguing not only who attended dinners, but much of what they discussed. In the last two years, the most common topics there were poverty and economics, equity and social inclusion, education and public safety. Last year in Chicago, the Trust also gave out $1,000 to $2,500 awards to groups who presented solutions to problems that they came up with at the meals.
As in Chicago, May 23 is an opening gambit, the first part of a citywide conversation that will hopefully carry on all year. “This is a celebration of the civic conversation,” says Coles. “You have this wonderful group of people you live with, work with, play with. How does that translate to building a stronger city and region?”Header photo by Juhan Sonin via Flickr