Table for Two: Transitioning "Ownership" of the Table

January 22, 2020 by On the Table NLN

As the Knight Foundation’s funding commitment to On the Table concludes, many cities in the Knight cohort are considering how they can keep the spirit of this powerful civic engagement initiative alive in their community. In this “Table for Two” feature, we sit down with Lisa Adkins (LA), president and CEO of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, and Richard Young (RY), co-founder and director of Civic Lex, a unique nonprofit organization focused on building a more participatory local democracy in the Lexington, Kentucky region. In 2020, Richard and the Civic Lex team will take the lead in implementing On the Table, with Lisa and the Community Foundation in a supportive partner role. We hear from them about the impact of On the Table in the Blue Grass region, as well as how and why their organizations decided to transition leadership of the civic engagement initiative

Tell us about how On the Table has impacted or changed the Blue Grass region.

LA: Our first On the Table in 2017 had a significant impact on the goals and objectives of the City of Lexington’s Comprehensive Plan, which governs land use policy and other quality-of-life issues in the largest metro area in the Blue Grass region. The input that emerged from On the Table took civic engagement with the Comprehensive Planning process to a new level, engaging over 10,000 residents from every City Council district. That community voice helped inform the decision to retain our city’s Urban Growth Boundary, affecting land use and development policy across the Blue Grass region.

In 2018 and 2019, On the Table served as a platform to start conversations about building better systems for civic participation and enhancing our community’s sense of belonging.

RY: It’s really impossible to overstate how significant an impact the 2017 On the Table had on the Comprehensive Plan. Before On the Table, it seems as if only a few hundred people engaged in the Comprehensive Planning process. On the Table shaped the outcome to be more resident-driven, but many of us see it as a turning point in how our city engages with the community. Here is admittedly nerdy example: The City of Lexington’s Division of Planning is now bringing developers and residents together to create a public engagement toolkit for zoning ordinance text amendments. This toolkit will make it easier for developers to understand the local context in which they are working and will significantly raise the requirements around community engagement that they are held to.

I don’t see a world in which this would have happened without the broad engagement into the 2018 Comprehensive Plan through On the Table.

How did the idea of CivicLex taking leadership of On the Table in 2020 evolve?

LA: The success of On the Table over the past three years was only made possible through a collaborative partnership with our Community Engagement Committee. CivicLex was an important part of that collaborative. The Community Foundation has a history of piloting new initiatives, but does not have the permanent programmatic team needed to oversee these projects on an ongoing basis. It only made sense for an organization that was part of the Engagement Committee to assume leadership of the program moving forward. CivicLex made the most sense given their mission to make Lexington a more civically engaged and resident-driven community.

RY: CivicLex is a young organization, and assuming a tried and tested project like On the Table is a huge benefit for us. We have had the experience of co-organizing the project with BGCF and other partners for three years, so we understand what it takes to pull it off. We’re excited to see how it changes as we put our own organizational ethos behind it.

What role will each of your organizations play in making On the Table happen in 2020?

RY: CivicLex is serving as the organizational lead for On the Table in 2020. We’re engaging a whole new crop of community leaders to help us maintain what’s worked in the past and to help us evolve the model moving forward.

LA: Blue Grass Community Foundation is excited to serve as a “superhost,” engaging hundreds of philanthropists and civic leaders in this year’s conversations. Community Foundation staff members, including our director of nonprofit services, are serving on the Engagement Committee and will help engage the hundreds of nonprofits that need to be “at the Table.” A member of our communications/technology team will also be available to provide context and information about our outreach efforts from past years.

How do you anticipate the model will change or evolve moving forward?

RY: We have built a more decentralized leadership model that involves around 65 people from across the city in four working groups and the Engagement Committee. We’ve partnered with local organizations to host conversations both before and after On the Table, so we can ensure that there is a sense of continuity for civic conversations. We’re partnering with almost a dozen different faculty and staff at the University of Kentucky to serve as evaluation partners. We’re also working with the city’s Division of Planning, as well as other partners like Commerce Lexington, to ensure that the data outcomes are available to support their planning and community engagement activities.

We’re also working to iterate the model to support year-round, robust civic engagement. We’re cohosting smaller conversations in neighborhoods with partners, like the Lexington Herald-Leader, divisions within Lexington’s city government, and more.

LA: We welcome change. We’re excited to see what evolves out of new leadership and fresh ideas! We have complete confidence that the CivicLex Team and all the partners involved can pull it off!

What are your goals in 2020?

RY: Basically, not to drop the ball! We know from three years of data that residents really enjoy participating in On the Table. We want to make sure it is still a positive experience for people, while bringing new people and new ideas to the conversations.

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