Loeb Lab 9: Food, Conversation and Community Empowerment

Cheryl Hughes (LF ’04), senior director of strategic initiatives at the Chicago Community Trust, invited a few community members to dinner–well, okay, 11,500–and a ferment of creative ideas, civic engagement and new collaborations ensued.

One hundred years ago—as Chicago’s population surged and transformed swiftly amidst the industrial revolution—Norman and Albert W. Harris of Harris Bank gathered friends and local business leaders from across Chicago. At a series of dinners they discussed how to better leverage their collective knowledge, collective creativity and collective resources to ensure a bright future for their city. Through these mealtime conversations, the idea for The Chicago Community Trust was born with a simple yet powerful premise: to give local residents an opportunity to combine their philanthropy to maximize their charitable impact and support their community in perpetuity.

This past spring, in anticipation of our Centennial Anniversary in May 2015, The Trust decided to turn back to our roots in celebration of our 99th birthday—if a small group of people could give light to such a powerful idea 100 years ago, what brilliance could thousands generate today?

Thus, On the Table was born with the mission to be a community-wide conversation about our collective future. More than 11,500 residents pulled up a chair at more than 1,100 On the Table mealtime conversations throughout the Chicagoland region on May 12, 2014, our 99th birthday.

These conversations took place at all sorts of locations throughout the City and suburbs—from the Ralph Lauren Café on Michigan Avenue to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. At least one conversation was held in each Chicago neighborhood and zip code as well as nearly every suburban community.

Mealtime conversations connected with fellow On the Table participants digitally and across the map. The dedicated hashtag #OntheTable2014 became the number one Twitter trend on the evening of May 12.

Out of these conversations came hundreds of ideas, big and small ideas on how to improve communities. We continue to sort through each idea submitted to evaluate the potential for implementation. Promising ideas may be pursued in a variety of ways, including–but not limited to: informing our future giving; further developing some of the most promising ideas through “collaboratories,” a series of design studios led by innovation firms with key stakeholders, experts and community members; and through a partnership with Chicago Ideas Week, which will be featuring some of the top ideas on their main stage in October.

What we learned from participants is that our fellow residents have a wealth of powerful—and actionable—ideas to improve the quality of their own lives and the lives of others.

Unfortunately, headlines of increased violence and lack of public funding monopolize the local news in and outside Chicago these days—the stories rousing emotions and provoking thoughts in each of us. On the Table provided a beacon of opportunity for local residents, empowering each and every person to speak up about what’s important to them and offer tactical approaches to address those issues.

Our ambition was to cultivate collaborations and promote civic engagement throughout all pockets and demographics of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods and the collar counties. Food and ideas were shared, fueling new and lasting partnerships.

On the Table has forever changed The Chicago Community Trust. It brought into focus the enduring reality that the strength of our community is our people. As long as we have residents who work for the common good, our communities remain strong—our capacity to be resilient remains intact.

Building Your Community

The beauty of an initiative like On the Table is that it can be replicated on any block, in any neighborhood, town, city or region. Below are eight keys to success for implementing a similar initiative in your community:

  1. Establish Your Mission
    Our mission was broad and clear—Improve Chicagoland’s communities. We stayed focused on the positive and encouraged all to be forward thinking. Questions like, “What does your region excel at?” and “How can concerned residents work together to improve the neighborhood?” paved the way for productive thought processes and ideas.
  2. Secure a Leadership Dream Team
    You’ll need a troop of local leaders to embrace the initiative’s fundamental mission. We created a Steering Committee composed of diverse participants representing different sectors and demographics. Directors of the volunteer organization Chicago Cares, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), Steppenwolf Theatre, Barclays Capital, members of the media and more joined together to create our “Leadership Dream Team.”To reach deeper into the community, the Steering Committee and staff reached out to find "Community Ambassadors" who worked as liaisons within their respective networks to spread the word in person and online. Meet some of our community leaders.
  3. Keep it Small and Let Conversations Flow
    On the Table was about giving everyone who cares about their community a voice and an opportunity to share their ideas — big and small. Open dialogue is as important as focusing on outcomes. Thousands of people participated, but they did so at intimate gatherings. Hosts were encouraged to keep table sizes to no more that 10-12 people so all participants could be active and engaged. Additionally, conversations were not professionally facilitated. Instead, hosts were given a few conversation prompts and facilitation hints to create an environment where conversation would flow without being overly managed.
  4. Empower Your Hosts
    For On the Table, our conversation hosts were the project’s grassroots ambassadors. We went to great lengths to ensure hosts were informed and equipped with materials to help kick start and navigate their group’s conversation. We provided a physical and electronic “Host Toolkit” and informational webinars, and we had staff available via phone and email to answer questions. As a result, we heard time and time again that their conversations were not only productive and interesting, but most importantly—inspiring.
  5. Inclusivity is Key
    Inclusivity and diversity go hand-in-hand. On the Table gatherings included eclectic groups of varying ages, genders, ethnicities, occupations/industries, interests and zip codes. Diversity ensures varied perspectives at the table, which helps to create well-rounded community solutions. Differences are good! Conflicting ideas challenge participants to explain why they feel strongly and encourages others to assert why they see it differently—exposing values and educating others.
  6. Promote, Promote, Promote
    In this day and age, the “build it and they will come” mentality isn’t enough. In order to successfully reach a large number of people from extremely diverse backgrounds, one must start communications and outreach months in advance via a variety of communication channels. Deep engagement through a resource-based website and social media channels provided for digital conversations between participants, bringing the dialogue to a new and highly visible platform, further supporting awareness, inclusivity and connectedness.
  7. Enlist the Media as Partners, Not Just Promoters
    On the Table’s success also was based in part on a strategy of enlisting local media outlets as partners and stakeholders early in the initiative. Nearly all the major media outlets in the region not only promoted the initiative to their respective audiences through their own channels, but also hosted On the Table gatherings. As a result, they connected with their audiences in a new way. Furthermore, On the Table generated nearly 100 news stories in a wide variety of news outlets in advance of May 12, leading to a remarkable level of awareness across the region.
  8. Break Bread Together
    Gathering around a table to share a meal is one of the oldest and most natural human traditions. During On the Table, food acted as the glue to invite and foster productive conversation and strengthen developing relationships. Strangers and neighbors feel comfortable sitting together and voicing their concerns. We found the type of food served was less important—whether it’s PB&J sandwiches or a gourmet meal, the focus was on the conversation.

As a nation, our collective futures rest on collaboration and community empowerment. It’s critical each of us contribute to that future in one way or another. As the Trust looks toward our 100th anniversary, we remain confident that this work—community building—will be the movement that reaffirms the indelible spirit and good in people.

Watch the On the Table recap video.
Learn more about the Trust.

 Photos: John White

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