Terry Mazany on Dialogue Through “On the Table”

Of all the common goods nurtured by the charitable sector, dialogue might be the most basic. A simple conversation can unlock so many other goods things – empathy, understanding, respect, humanity, and the list goes on.

How do you create the kind of dialogue that builds communities and tears down walls? For Terry Mazany, the key was bringing people together for a meal. As CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, Terry helped launch On the Table, a citywide initiative that has grown from 11,000 participants to more than 100,000 in just four years. Once a year over dinner, Chicagoans from all walks of life gather to meet new people and talk about race, justice, education, health, neighborhoods, the economy, or anything else on their minds.

If it all sounds a little chaotic or unfocused, that might just be the point. Terry sees his role as a convener rather than a choreographer, and he believes that the best engagement comes from the heart, not from a script.

An IS board member for the past two years, Terry generously agreed to an interview about dialogue, vision, impact … and food.

RJ: What was your inspiration for On the Table? Of all the things that CCT might have invested in back in 2014, what led you to this particular effort?

TM: The Chicago Community Trust has three pillars to our strategic plan: inspiring philanthropy, engaging residents, and leading change. Our goal is for metropolitan Chicago to be the most philanthropic region in the nation, for our foundation to be engaged directly with residents to help solve local challenges, and lead in areas where, but for the Trust, progress would not be made.

During our 99th anniversary, a staff member had the insight that it would have been 100 years earlier when a small group of civic leaders were discussing the idea of a community foundation founded the year prior in Cleveland. These men, and yes, it would have been exclusively men, decided that Chicago would benefit from such an institution and they founded the Chicago Community Trust. Our thought was, if a small number of people could have such a big idea, what would result from thousands of people sharing their ideas? Thus was born On the Table: individuals hosting mealtime conversations in their home, community center, library, or restaurant.

RJ: Everyone is talking about engagement these days, but Chicago Community Trust seems to have a pretty unique vision for what that means. Tell me how On the Table embodies your engagement philosophy.

TM: Organized around the oldest of human traditions—breaking bread together and conversing—On the Table has proven to be a galvanizing idea for civic dialogue that invites residents to engage with those whom they do not normally interact to join in fellowship and conversation.

RJ: Scale is another topic on everyone’s mind, and it’s something that’s hard to do. How do you think about scale with On the Table?

TM: Each year we have doubled the number of participants and hosts, from 10,000 in year one, to 25,000, to 50,000 to 100,000 in year four.

A key to growth is the engagement of partners who organize dozens to a hundred or more tables of constituents focused on their mission. In some ways, On the Table can be thought of as a neutral platform, like an iPhone available to builders of apps for specific purposes. This model scales because it does not promote the Trust’s agenda, or any single agenda; but rather, each organization or cause can use this platform to engage residents around their interests.

RJ: You found a way to bring 100,000 people into dialogue, but how does that help to move the needle on social change? And just as importantly, how do you know? How do you measure?

TM: Simply put, engagement is the outcome. At a time when the demand for metrics and measures dominates our sector, we have lost sight of those defining human experiences that are, in and of themselves, the essence of what it means to be humans living in community with others. For example, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. To bring people together across racial, ethnic, and economic divides achieves the outcome of greater understanding leading to empathy, increased trust resulting in social cohesion.

In a second example, the Chicago Police Department has deployed the On the Table methodology year-round to restore trust and confidence between residents and police officers. Each police district works with neighbors who host dinners.

We see a direct connection between the increased social cohesion with the increased capacity of communities to work together to solve problems. We have tested this hypothesis by engaging tables in design labs and providing “Acting Up” micro-grants to help move ideas to action.

RJ: I was grateful that you let us send two IS staff to this year’s On the Table, and they came back energized and full of ideas. I know others are also learning from your example, and efforts are springing up in other cities with funding from the Knight Foundation. What advice would you give to anyone who might want to start a similar effort?

TM: At a time of extreme polarization and social fragmentation and isolation, cities around the country have embraced the simple elegance of the On the Table design and methodology that is easily adapted to local context and needs. More than a dozen cities have already demonstrated the ease of integration within the local fabric of community and have achieved even greater reach in their inaugural years than did the Trust.

For a city, On the Table is a powerful, yet efficient means to bring your community together, and social cohesion is foundational to solving most of the challenges our residents face. For example, in one city, the mayor embraced On the Table as a way to gain broad resident input into the city’s plan.

For the community foundation, On the Table is a low-cost way to put the foundation in direct relation with the residents it serves. The day of On the Table is, for me, a magical experience as I hear first-hand accounts of the hopes and dreams, frustrations and fears directly from fellow residents who call this community home. This enriches my vision for our community foundation and orients our priorities and programs to the needs expressed by residents. In fact, the ideas expressed at On the Table set our foundation’s priorities for our strategic plan.

If you’d like to hear more about On the Table and other strategic investments by the Chicago Community Trust, be sure to register for Our Common Future, where Terry Mazany will be a featured speaker.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Common Goods, Dialogue, Health and Human Services, IS Board, IS Member, IS Staff, Organizational Relationships, Upswell