On an otherwise ordinary day in May, 2017, more than 2,000 Philadelphians from all over the city and region stopped what they were doing, and instead did something increasingly extraordinary: They talked to each other.
That first On The Table Philly was a daylong series of meals that provided a glimpse into Philadelphians of all populations and passions. Some 300 hosts—from church groups to media outlets to businesses, politicians and community groups—chose a topic and invited 10 guests to talk about it with them. They shared thoughts on race, education, safety, neighborhoods, voting. But, essentially, they all talked about one thing: Their Philadelphia.
It was a shared experience of the most basic kind. What’s more old-fashioned, after all, than breaking bread and sharing ideas? And it was all the more profound for the times we live in, when community often means Facebook groups and shared Tweets and taking the time to virtually “check in” to real-live places.
“The digital age tends to pull people away from face to face contact,” notes Pedro Ramos, president of The Philadelphia Foundation, which organized On The Table, along with the Knight Foundation. “But as we saw, there’s an appetite for that. People ultimately want to make the places where they are better, and get to know each other, trust each other and do things together in ways that Instagram posts or whatever can’t always do and can’t replace.”
The challenge, this time around, is getting beyond the low-hanging fruit, to residents who are not already part of the conversation in Philly, to expand beyond the already community-minded among us—to hear, in other words, from those who are often unheard.
The foundations are now gearing up for the second On The Table, on November 8th, hoping to solicit more hosts and more participants in even more parts of the city. Sign ups began last week, and will continue up to the day of the event, when hosts will be asked to provide a simple meal (or drinks or even pot luck) and a topic of conversation. After, participants are asked to fill out questionnaires about what they discussed, who they met and what they learned. The organizers are agnostic about the topics, and the form of the gathering. The point is simply to do something.
Last year, for example, Vetri Community Partnerships hosted an after school meal with 8th graders; the Center for Relationships had a mental health-themed conversation; The Citizen and Urban Affairs Coalition had a happy hour to talk about the role race has played in our lives. A Knight-funded study based on last year’s questionnaires showed that the largest topic of conversations (31 percent) had to do with education and youth development, followed by equity and social inclusion (28 percent) and economic issues and poverty (22 percent). That reflects what participants also reported were their three most important issues.
Without conversation, you can’t form partnerships, or share ideas, or get inspired by other people’s thoughts. But it’s what happens when the 2,000 participants get up from the table and go back to their lives that really matters.
On the Table Philly is based on Chicago’s On The Table, which launched in 2014 with 10,000 participants. By 2016, 55,000 people participated in that city’s event, which has grown to include seed money for projects and a year long social media and events campaign. Last year, Knight funded On The Table in 10 American cities, including Philadelphia. Ramos says the Philadelphia Foundation considers last year and this one to be pilots, in the hopes that “this is something we want to institutionalize in some form.” How that happens is unclear.
Last year’s participants were a well-educated, civically-engaged group who reported overwhelmingly that they vote, volunteer, give money to charity and own their own homes—the low-hanging fruit when it comes to community engagement. But, as Ramos points out, they were also dispersed—2/3 lived outside of Center City—and diverse: While 47 percent of participants were white, 37 percent were African American, close to the percentage of black Philadelphians in the general city population. This was intentional.
“We knew, unfortunately, that a lot of efforts get to the end, and then try to figure out how to be inclusive,” Ramos says. “We started out knowing that being inclusive would take the effort. It was by design, not by remediation.”
The challenge, this time around, is getting beyond that low-hanging fruit, to residents who are not already part of the conversation in Philly, to expand beyond the already community-minded among us—to hear, in other words, from those who are often unheard. The event this year takes place two days after election day—our semi-annual look at who (few) stands up to be heard and who doesn’t. Can this year’s day of dining be a celebration of shared citizenship? Could it even, as Ramos hypothesizes, set people up for next year’s big local elections, of Mayor and City Council?
Because the even bigger challenge for On The Table is what happens next. Getting people to come together is important, for sure. Without conversation, you can’t form partnerships, or share ideas, or get inspired by other people’s thoughts. But it’s what happens when the 2,000 participants get up from the table and go back to their lives that really matters. Can this one meal over one day in the city create a movement? Can it be a spark that leads to real change in a community? Can it be more than talk?
After last year’s event, 53 percent said they were very likely to “take specific actions or next steps regarding an issue or solution discussed,” including building relationships and collaboration, educating others and getting more involved in their community. But Ramos says they have not followed up with attendees to see what came of their intentions, something he hopes to better track in the coming year.
This time around, the Philadelphia Foundation is also promising to award small grants to help fund some of the ideas that come out of On The Table conversations in November. (“We’ll provide the spark, not the gas,” Ramos notes.) This is a small step towards what now happens in Chicago, where the Community Trust (along with several donors) gave out $150,000 in grant money this year to people and organizations after the May On The Table event. Those included arts projects, civic engagement efforts, reentry programs, children’s activities—the gamut, really, of ideas to bolster urban neighborhoods.
That would be a remarkable place to get to in Philly, as well. Who knows? Grassroots ideas that form around the dinner table could very well be the keys to building the communities we want to live in.Header photo: On The Table