Table for Two: Reflections from Year One of On the Table

October 22, 2019 by On the Table NLN

On the Table can a transformative learning experience, both for participants and for the organizations leading the implementation of this civic engagement initiative. In this “Table for Two” feature, we sit down with Eric Aquino (EA), community impact associate at the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties and Nancy Cleveland (NC), communications & development associate at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia. Eric and Nancy lead their organization’s effort to launch On the Table in their communities last year. We hear from them about why their organizations decided to implement this civic engagement initiative, what’d they’ll do differently next time and how introducing On the Table has impacted their communities.

What interested your community in the initiative? 

NC: The Community Foundation of Central Georgia and Knight Foundation have been strong partners throughout the years. When we saw the positive things happening in other communities as a result of On the Table, we were eager to bring it to Macon. Our community was at the beginning of the planning process for our second five-year community and economic development plan. We knew that the On the Table conversations and participant survey results would be an excellent way to gather information from local residents to inform that process.

EA: Palm Beach County is also a Knight community and we had seen the impact On the Table was having in other Knight communities. As a community foundation, we are uniquely positioned to lead efforts such as these and we recognize the responsibility we have to engage our community engage in civic engagement initiatives like On the Table. We saw On the Table as a chance to become more informed about the challenges and opportunities facing our community and its residents, allow us to become even more effective in making the most impactful grants to further our mission of giving all residents an equal opportunity to thrive.

What is one thing that surprised you in planning the conversations? If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?

EA: We truly did not know what the initial response would be after we announced our involvement in On the Table. The enthusiastic respond we got was both exciting and daunting. Since it was our first year hosting On the Table, there were times it felt as though we were building the plane as we were flying it. If we could do something differently during the planning, it would be to have been even more strategic in our outreach to areas where our Foundation did not have as much prior engagement. If we had done so, I believe we could have gotten more representation in certain areas. 

NC: We took an educational approach because some residents in our community did not understand and even questioned the approach, which was surprising. If we could turn back time, we probably would have started our outreach and promotional efforts sooner so that more people could learn about and get involved in On the Table. Luckily, with all the great media coverage we got, we will not have to do as much explaining this year!

What is one tip that you would give other communities thinking about implementing On the Table? 

EA: We had a similar experience. At first, it was difficult for us to articulate just what On the Table was and what it offered our community. Our team realized the difficulty was rooted in the fact that our community hadn’t had an opportunity like this before. Once we recognized the power in describing On the Table as an initiative that creates a space for people to ask themselves and others why they love where they live, communicating about it was easy. We emphasized that On the Table provides the community a space to have a constructive conversation that begins from a place of positivity. We are confident these conversations created tipping points for so many more local residents to contribute to the vibrancy of our area. I would encourage other communities to embrace the freedom to customize On the Table to meet the needs their community.

NC: I also would tell them to reach out to unconventional organizations to host a table. All voices matter and On the Table is a great forum to elevate the voice of those who are often underrepresented. You will be surprised at the number people who get excited and enthusiastic about getting on board once you extend an invitation. For example, we reached out to our local sheriff who organized a table in the jail with six inmates. 

Can you share an example of the impact the conversations have had in your community?

NC: This story truly showcases the power of a conversation. One of our guests, Kim French, attended a conversation with the Historic Macon Foundation. She was so inspired by one of our conversation prompts, “If you only had $100 what would you do to improve Macon-Bibb County?” that she took actions into her own hands. She began a letter-writing campaign and enlisted the residents who lived on the street where she worked to join her in community clean-ups. They now clean up that street once a month.

EA: One example that jumps to mind involves a table hosted at a local university. Unaware that members of the school’s Residence Life staff were present, a student expressed their intent to leave the school due to a lack of opportunities for minority males. Having heard the student’s message, those staff members immediately held a meeting to plan how they would make changes to improve. On the Table allowed this university a chance to become more aware of the needs of their students in a way that may not have been possible otherwise. Because of the conversations and the school enacting changes as a result, the student was able to make a more informed decision about his future at the university.

What will your community do differently in planning for On the Table this year? 

EA: This year, we wanted to find a way to increase our survey responses. We know the survey is the best possible tool to hear from all the participants in a systematic way. To increase responses, we will be offering reimbursements to qualifying nonprofit organizations who host a table and have at least 50 percent of their participants complete a survey. We hope this will provide an overall lift in responses, as well as further diversify the kinds of participants who complete the survey. We also are looking for ways to engage sectors of our community that did not participate last year, both geographically and culturally. One of the ways we will do this will be partnering with the county’s library systems. Ahead of the event we will utilize different libraries for meeting spaces for our Steering Committee as well as Table Host Trainings. On the day of, we believe they will thrive as public tables.

NC: The Central Georgia community is doing two things differently this year. We are expanding On the Table to Milledgeville, a small college town located less than an hour east of Macon, to include more voices from the Central Georgia region. We are also going to be using both paper and online surveys to increase the number of respondents next year. We heard from 782 adults last year and we hope to double that goal with the addition of the paper surveys. 

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