Table for Two: Hosting Topic-Specific Conversations
February 4, 2019 by On the Table NLN
On the Table provides a unique opportunity to listen to and learn from our communities, elevating the issues and opportunities on the forefront on residents’ minds. While many On the Table initiatives have been open-ended, allowing hosts and guests to determine the path their conversation will take, other communities have taken a more focused approach, digging deep on an issue that was important to their community. How did they select the topic? Were there differences in the way they engaged participants and helped hosts prepare for these topical On the Table conversations?
In this “Table for Two,” we sit down with Whitney Feld (WF), assistant vice president, Family Office Partners for the Foundation for the Carolinas (FFTC), who tackled the legacy of segregation in Charlotte through their 2018 On the Table CLT conversations, and Mauricio Palma (MP), director of initiatives and special projects of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), whose On the Table conversations since 2017 have focused on that region’s housing crisis.
How and why did the foundation decide to focus its On the Table conversations on a single topic or issue?
MP: In 2016, in the context of the divisive atmosphere around the national elections, Silicon Valley Community Foundation had facilitated a series of community conversations to examine the most critical issues in our region. Those conversations, which engaged over 700 leaders representing approximately 300 NGO, government, business and academic institutions, indicated that housing was the most significant issue affecting people living and working in our region. In addition, we heard concerns about the increasing economic inequities, political polarization, hateful speech and a lack of empathy. We recognized a greater need to invest in relationship-building and organizing to give communities the tools necessary reimagine Silicon Valley and knit a stronger sense of community. When we learned about the opportunity to participate in Knight Foundation’s On the Table replication, it was clear to us, our community partners and residents that conversations focused on housing was the way to move forward. On the Table has been a perfect fit.
WF: We had an overwhelmingly positive response to our inaugural On the Table conversations in 2017, which focused broadly on the concept of social capital as a way to increase economic mobility and a recently released economic opportunity task force report. When we convened early in 2018 to debrief, Charlotte’s legacy of segregation emerged as the topic of greatest concern to our community. It was an opportunity for On the Table to provide a forum for honest dialogue around Charlotte’s history as a way to move our city forward, especially in regard to race and how it continues to impact the community we live in today.
How did you help prepare hosts for this targeted conversation?
MP: SVCF is not the first institution in our region to invest resources to address the housing crisis. Many NGOs, government institutions, businesses and academic networks have worked to address the housing crisis as well. Consequently, On the Table could not be defined as “The Foundation is inviting you to have conversations about housing.” These conversations were already happening, so building partnerships was key. Asking the question “How might On the Table help you advance your work on housing issues?,” we met with organizations across the region in so that the stories, information and solutions resulting from On the Table would add value to the strategies and tactics being implemented by hundreds of organizations and individuals. We then worked together to design conversations protocols, prompts and supporting materials that laid out the challenges around housing facing our region.
WF: Talking about segregation and all that it entails can be intimidating, so we felt it was critical that we provide ample training opportunities – above and beyond what we offered to hosts in our first year of On the Table. We made sure that the trainings were located throughout the city and were offered at a wide array of times so that most people would be able to find a training to accommodate their schedule. We also had a recorded training available on our website for hosts unable to attend in person.
MP: Host trainings, or as we called them, “orientations” were really important for us, as well. We offered multiple sessions across the region and at all hours of the day and night, making it available online for those who were not able to attend in person. In addition, we translated our core On the Table materials into Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin, and offered live translations in the orientations. We provided phone hours to provide individualized orientations. Finally, we supported organizations that used our host guide, conversation questions and the regional housing data to customize their orientations to prepare community leaders and organizers to host conversations in diverse constituencies in the region, including farm workers, faith leaders, LGBT advocates, youth leaders and senior activists.
WF: We were also very intentional about building our host guide and providing the appropriate scaffolding for the conversation. Having the timeline of segregation available in our guide was of critical importance. We were very intentional about engaging a well-respected historian to create the timeline on our behalf to ensure its credibility.
MP: At the end of the day, we practiced maximum flexibility. As a result, we saw On the Table conversations used as a learning platform, an outreach tool, a meet-up opportunity, a networking forum, an ideation workshop and a community engagement laboratory.
What did you learn from these conversations?
MP: On the Table is designed to increase civic participation, foster new relationships and inspire action through small-group conversations over a meal, coffee or tea, after work or at any other time during the day. The conversations this year drew people who had a greater interest in deeper civic participation and in organizing at the local and regional levels. In 2018, 90 percent of our On the Table conversations took place before the November election, which included three important state propositions focused on housing. Many community partners started planning in May and organized On the Table as “a season of conversations” designed to strategize on how to engage community members in the electoral process, and move people to action, both before and after the elections, to address the housing challenges facing our region. It was a different approach, but I feel it was an appropriate and effective adaptation.
WF: We are blessed to have a diverse community, and many of our citizens are ready to come together to create change and build a more vibrant and inclusive Charlotte. But conversation alone is not sufficient; part of the dialogue has to center on action and there must be accountability for that action. We still have tremendous work to do as a community as there were many people who didn’t “come to the table” and or don’t believe that race relations are still an issue in our community, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
MP: I agree that a focus on action is important. Silicon Valley On the Table participants recognized that the housing crisis is not a “personal problem,” but they also talked about the actions that can be taken by individuals, groups of residents or civil institutions—things that everyone can do, like sharing stories of impact to help more people feel connected to the issue, building greater empathy by having conversations across the political divide, keeping the conversations going, attending City Council meetings, sending emails to elected officials, being better informed about what is happening in the community and more.
How are you planning to use what you learned?
MP: With the support of the Knight Foundation, On the Table will be a three-year initiative for SVCF. In 2018, our goal was to move beyond conversations from stories to strategies for action reflective of resident’s interests and aspirations. We are far from completing our learning process – 420 individuals gave us their ideas by responding to a survey and about 100 shared notes from the conversations. Once we collect the notes from this year’s conversations, we will summarize the ideas and perspectives to inform the creation of a regional action framework.
This year, we will engage our community partners and organize On the Table to host thoughtful and civil dialogues designed to influence housing policy. In early 2019, we will host a series of conversations with our advisors and community partners working on issues related to housing in our region, and develop a report that will offer regional action recommendations. We plan to use that report to develop the framework for our 2019 conversations – again, with a goal of moving beyond the table and making change throughout the region.
WF: On the Table will continue to inform how the Foundation for the Carolinas acts as a convener and how we think about engaging the community in our civic leadership work. Additionally, implementing the Act On Grants program coming out of On the Table 2018 offered the community an opportunity to move ideas from the table into action, and was an interesting way for us to experiment with new ways to break down barriers for nonprofits wanting to apply for grants. The pared-down application and video submissions allowed for a wide range of nonprofits to engage in this program.
What tips would you give a community who wants to host On the Table conversations focused on a single issue?
WF: Your intentionality is critical. Additionally, if the topic is picked by the community and not the foundation, it will have an even more powerful impact.
MP: Absolutely. It would be a mistake to try to own the process. While the community foundation can be a partner and provide resources, On the Table needs to be designed for and driven by the community.