With less than two months to finalize the details of a community-wide engagement project, the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley brought together more than 75 representatives of churches, non-profit organizations and businesses on Monday.
Through a grant from the Knight Foundation, the Community Foundation is planning “On the Table,” a small group discussion event that hopes to bring thousands of local resident together for frank conversation on difficult topics over a meal.
The end game is improving the community, said Betsy Covington, executive director of the Community Foundation.
“This is a huge opportunity to learn what people are thinking,” Covington said. “But this is also about listening.”
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The idea originated in Chicago, and the Knight Foundation — a non-profit organization that invests in journalism, the arts and the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers — is pushing it into 10 additional communities. The Columbus event is scheduled for Nov. 7.
Monday, Covington and her staff explained how the small-table meals would work. Organizations including Columbus State University, Uptown Columbus Inc., the Rotary Club, the Muscogee County School District and Brookstone School have already signed up to participate and host 15 or more tables as part of their efforts. Each table should have eight to 12 participants.
Each participant will fill out a survey and that information will be processed by the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Illinois, which has assembled the data for similar events. That information will be available for community-wide use, Covington said.
As an example, organizers pointed to a collaboration between St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the Greater Beallwood Baptist Church. St. Thomas organizer Sherry Wade and Greater Beallwood Pastor Adrian Chester say they will work together to facilitate discussion on a variety of tough topics.
“Our church, in particular, is involved with the Boxwood neighborhood and I am hoping we can get some of the residents of Boxwood to come and be a part of this conversation,” Wade said. “We can’t talk enough about how we can coexist in our community and have each other’s backs when we need to.”
“... We don’t necessarily see the level of hatred and bigotry that we see in other parts of the country,” Chester said. “We want to make sure that faith communities make a statement that we coexist. Although we have different skin tones, what brings us together is our concern for humanity and our love for God.”
An “On the Table” event was held earlier this year in Lexington, Ky., and it drew 11,000 participants.
The organizers have not set a number they would like to see participate, but with six weeks to go they are still recruiting hosts and inviting people to participate. To sign up as a host, guest or participant, go to http://www.onthetablechatt.com/ or call 706-718-9565. There are also open tables that people can sign up for if they are not already in a group.
“I think there is huge value in participating in a movement,” Covington said. “If there’s quality conversation happening across the communities, the fact that we are talking and listening at the same time is valuable.”