“Even though I’ve been in Macon close to 40 years, living, working, worshipping, and volunteering in almost every corner of this county, I learned so much more about the people of Macon-Bibb,” says local advocate and activist Claire Cox of her On the Table experience last year. “I remember at a wrap-up meeting for the event, the wish was expressed that ‘on-the-table’ could become a verb in Macon, as in, “Let’s on-the-table that problem, issue, or need.”
Sounds cool– but what exactly is On the Table? As their website states boldly: It’s not about the food. Instead, it’s about a community coming together to connect, to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and uplifted. And it’s about being inspired to do more for your community with what you have, to contribute your time, talent, and ideas towards making Central Georgia a brighter, better, and more inclusive place to live for all our citizens.
The On the Table concept was born when the Chicago Community Trust invited residents from all walks of life to share a meal and open up about hot-button issues often considered too ‘taboo’ for the traditional dinner table– poverty, politics, race relations. Breaking down barriers and having difficult conversations turned out to be an invaluable tool in strengthening and growing sometimes-troubled communities. In 2017, the Knight Foundation provided $2 million in funding to expand this program to a handful of other cities, Macon among them. The goal here is honesty– no faking, no quick fixes, just people from every race, gender, and income bracket coming together to get real about the pressing issues in our city, and in the process forming connections and brainstorming ideas that will eventually culminate in transformations both big and small.
More than 5,000 people took part in the Community Foundation of Central Georgia-led initiative last year, and nearly 800 completed the post-conversation survey. The results from this are encouraging– 66% of respondents reported feeling hopeful about the direction and future of their community, with 34% expressing worry as their primary emotion. The survey asked respondents to identify the top three issues they’d like to see addressed within their community– crime, violence, and public safety were first on this list, followed by poverty and economic insecurity, with jobs and economic development coming in third.
“We worked with the steering committee to create questions based around those top issues,” says Nancy Cleveland, Communications and Development Associate with the Community Foundation, “And in this year’s host toolkit, you’ll find those questions, which will help spark conversation about those issues.” Also, new this year is a 3-page resource guide for hosts to give to guests so that they’re armed with the support they need to answer questions and find help in our community.
Cleveland says another goal for this year is to increase the numbers– both the numbers of attendees and of people taking the post-event survey. A paper survey will be offered this year, and in addition, CFCG is teaming up with NewTown Macon to offer a cupcake walk on Halloween. Participants who were involved with On the Table can take the survey and get into the cupcake walk for free, and for those who didn’t make the event, there will be some mini On the Table sessions available that night– with a free cupcake reward at the end, of course.
Last year, participants were encouraged to apply for Conversation to Action mini-grants. These grants, awarded in amounts from $100 to $1000, were given to individuals, groups, or organizations who generated new, inclusive, community-building ideas based on their On the Table experience. Winners included Andrea Cooke’s Laundry Days, which provides free laundry services– and accompanying community-minded discussion sessions– for impoverished communities, LaTravius Smith’s proposition to implement a Mental Health Symposium to address the effects of poverty on the mental health of children and families in the Macon-Bibb area, and Scott Mitchell’s Access to Public Restroom Initiative. “Being part of On the Table helped broaden my perspective on income inequality in our community. I learned that the biggest challenge facing our homeless neighbors is access to public restrooms,” says Mitchell. “I took that information and wrote a grant to fund a public toilet in downtown Macon.”
This year’s On the Table will take place on Wednesday, October 30. Want to get involved? Here’s how. Hop onto the On the Table Macon website (www.onthetablemacon.com), where you can register as a host. The specifics of the event are up to you, simply choose a time and a location and then register for host training, which will help you gain the skills you’ll need to effectively navigate these conversations. Organizations such as schools, churches, businesses, and nonprofits can also sign up to be a superhost. This means a commitment to hosting at least 10 tables with 8-12 guests per table. If you simply want to find a way to join in on one or more of these conversations, keep checking the website– there will be a comprehensive list of available tables closer to Oct 30, and you can reserve space then.
The next training sessions is Friday, October 18 from 12:00-1:30pm on the 16th floor of the Fickling Building in the Cherry Blossom Suite. This session is open to anyone interested in finding out more about this program, so take advantage! On the Table is an amazing opportunity to learn more about your neighbors and become more civically and socially engaged in the process. Collaboration, communication, and honesty are powerful tools that can enact real change, as any previous participant can tell you. In the words of Andrea Cooke, “I learned that having the opportunity to put everything on the table is invaluable and necessary for pushing our community forward. We all have a responsibility to make our community better than we found it.”