‘The issues are more than housing, jobs.’ What Columbus is learning from On The Table

Thirty or so people gathered in the conference room of the Columbus government center annex early Tuesday morning with two things on their mind: good food and constructive conversation.

For the next hour and a half, the city’s Community Reinvestment Department facilitated five round-table discussions on the topic of affordable housing. Breakfast, of course, was included.

The talk was one of hundreds of conversations going on Tuesday across the Chattahoochee Valley as the city participates in On the Table 2019, a day-long series of civic conversations.

Several dozen public events were hosted by local groups, with topics like foster care advocacy, domestic violence prevention and recidivism. Some organizations, like the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, were hosting a chat for the first time.

Carrie Strickland was seated at one of the tables in the government center annex. It was her first time participating in the On the Table program, which Columbus has hosted for three consecutive years.

Strickland and her husband Rob are residents of the North Highland neighborhood, and together they run Truth Spring, a Christian nonprofit. In recent years they have obtained and renovated four homes in North Highland, which are rented to families who previously lived in substandard conditions within the neighborhood.

Strickland attended the Community Reinvestment On the Table chat to make connections with other service providers and contribute to the broader discussion.

The Community Reinvestment department is in charge of administering federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as annual funding from the Community Development Block Grant and Home Investment Partnership programs, among other responsibilities.

“Being a small nonprofit, we don’t consider ourselves to be isolated,” Strickland said. “We really do look for opportunities to partner with people who are doing things that we can’t do as a small organization and to really make that kind of connection.”

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Kevin Garza, a city planner with the Columbus Consolidated Government’s Community Reinvestment Department, facilitates a discussion Tuesday morning about affordable housing at an On the Table discussion.The talk was one of hundreds of conversations going on across the Chattahoochee Valley during On the Table 2019, a day-long series of civic conversations. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Others seated with Strickland represented organizations like United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, Home for Good and Direct Services, which provides nutrition, health and support services for seniors and disabled persons. They traded war stories and tips and debated whether housing or workforce training should be priority one to help citizens break the cycle of poverty.

“This is where you come and recognize that everybody is seeing the broader issues, and that’s refreshing to see that people know the issues are bigger than just housing, or just jobs, or just ‘this,’ it’s really a combination,” Strickland said.

Strickland said the talks are not about finding a solution to problems, but making a start.

“Columbus has so many amazing resources but finding the right inlet to those is sometimes hard,” Strickland said. “We probably already have everything in place but just need a hub where people can find all of those things. This is a good place to find a hub, where you find some of those missing pieces.”

The group at the government center annex were among thousands of people across the city who participated in On the Table. The only two rules for hosting a table are that groups must be between 8 and 12 people, and there must be some kind of food to share.

The goal was to connect people who might not otherwise cross paths and encourage meaningful conversation about not only the things that are great about Columbus, but also ways to make the community better.

Columbus is one of 10 U.S. cities that participated in the program, courtesy of a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley’s endowment funds also support the local version of the program.

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Muscogee County Sheriff Donna Tompkins hosted an On the Table discussion Tuesday morning at the Columbus Government Center. The talk was one of hundreds of conversations going on across the Chattahoochee Valley during On the Table 2019, a day-long series of civic conversations. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Community outreach and the responsibilities of a sheriff in Georgia were just two of the many topics discussed at an On the Table held in the Columbus Government Center, where Sheriff Donna Tompkins and the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office hosted the event for the first time.

Attendees chose between several topics including Jail 101 and the importance of law enforcement working with community stakeholders. Members of the sheriff’s office were present at each table to help lead the discussion and answer any questions.

Tompkins said she hopes attendees walked away with a better understanding of both the mission and the functions of the sheriff’s office.

“I’ve been a part of other people’s tables, but this is the first time we’ve held something on our own,” Tompkins said. “I wanna kinda gauge the reaction and get back with the folks that hosted a table from our staff and pick up from what we learned there and go into the next one.”

Betsy Covington, Community Foundation president and chief executive officer, said Tuesday afternoon she has calculated over 6,500 places filled at tables across Columbus, with 550 tables and over 100 organizations hosting conversations.

The number is always difficult to pin down due to organizations and groups creating their events on platforms other than the Community Foundation’s website, but Covington said that’s not a bad thing.

“If people here are taking ownership of this event that’s great,” Covington said. “This makes us really feel like people are hungry to talk to each other.”

Those who participated in an On the Table discussion are encouraged to fill out an online survey.

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Allie Dean is the Columbus city government and accountability reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer, and also writes about new restaurants, developments and issues important to readers in the Chattahoochee Valley. She’s a graduate of the University of Georgia.