On Tuesday May 17, the Chicago Community Trust hosted “On the Table,” their annual forum designed to “elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action across the region.” Over the past four years, On the Table has engaged more and more community members across the city of Chicago – reaching an estimated 100,000 people in 2017. Independent Sector’s Marie LeBlanc and Katie Jones attended the event to observe and learn from the Trust’s model of community engagement, and Marie shares her top three insights here.
1. It’s good to let go
One tenet of the Chicago Community Trust’s design model is ‘maximum flexibility’, and this value permeates all aspects of On the Table. Because the Trust was willing to let go of absolute control of the content and format of table conversations, community members could create unique spaces to have the conversations they needed to have. As a result, the Trust heard and learned things they wouldn’t have otherwise.
With the help of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Trust is supporting other community foundations across the country to use and adapt their model. The Trust encourages communities to make the model their own, and to ensure that it responds to the history and traditions of their place. The Trust’s willingness to be transparent, share openly, and learn with others is a refreshing change of pace.
2. Need for intergenerational conversations
Two table conversations that I attended were focused on Chicago youth and teens – one at an alternative high school in the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and one at an afterschool program in the downtown loop. While the two conversations couldn’t have taken place in more diverse settings, both demonstrated the (often untapped) wisdom of young people as partners in solving community problems.
The students around both tables were thoughtful and passionate when speaking about the impacts of gang violence, drug crime, immigration raids, and segregated schools on their lives. I hope that, in the future, more conversations like these will invite the voices of youth, adults, and elders to participate at the same table and understand the unique perspectives, and wisdom, that each have to offer.
— Independent Sector (@IndSector) May 16, 2017
3. Building muscles for active citizenship
At a time when our country still feels divided, it’s easy to underestimate the value of simply sharing a meal and talking about the issues facing your community. Democracy-building can happen in the halls of Congress, and it can happen at the dinner tables of families and communities in the rural Midwest. The Chicago Community Trust anticipated this need over four years ago, and their work is echoed by other grassroots models that have emerged in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election (like 100 Days, 100 Dinners – now The People’s Supper).
It takes effort to build the mental muscles needed to have productive discourse with those who have a different opinion – finding common ground in common experiences, conversing with empathy and humility, and connecting our core values with our community-based work. Independent Sector looks forward to following efforts like these and supporting the needs of the sector as we continue to work towards the common good together.
Marie LeBlanc is the manager of critical issues and sector advancement and Independent Sector.