Yesterday I got to do something I have been dreaming of doing for a long time.
Now keep in mind, as an arts and cultural policy nut, my dreams tend to be a little different than everyone else’s.
Yesterday I participated in On The Table Macon, a project whose goal was to get people out talking about how to change their community.
The reason I had been dreaming about being able to participate in this was a long time was because I have been enamored with the basic concept since it was executed as 500 Plates in Akron, OH and the Longest Table in Tallahassee, FL.
When I saw there was going to be a similar effort in Macon, I signed up to participate on my second day on the job here.
(Just a little disclaimer, the major funders of the local On The Table, the Knight Foundation and Community Foundation of Central Georgia, fund my organization.)
Instead of a discussion occurring in a single place at a set time, there were dozens of discussions occurring across the community with the first ones starting at 7:00 am and the last one beginning at 8:00 pm. The topics covered everything imaginable, including some which were specifically intended as forums with government officials. People agreed to act as hosts in parks, private homes, business offices, libraries, churches and community centers. In total, there were over 1500 seats available around the community.
While the general concept emerged from the idea that community bonds are forged over meals, the organizers were empathic that “It’s not about the food.” I imagine this was in part to prevent those who volunteered as hosts from feeling obligated to provide a gourmet experience for dozens of people. Also so that participants weren’t focused on attending the sessions with the best food choices versus the most engaging topics.
Other than wanting to be part of the basic experience, my motivation for participating was to get a sense of the community to which I had recently moved. The first session I attended was at the public library where the topic was “Preserving Ethnic History.”
Readers of this blog know that I often talk about people desiring to see their stories depicted by arts and cultural organizations. Since I helped Hawaiian artists tell their stories through performance, I wanted to learn if similar opportunities for partnerships might exist in this community.
As much as I was interested in the topic, I as concerned that the subject might have too much niche appeal to attract many participants. I need not have worried as the table quickly filled and needed to accommodate some chairs at the corners. The conversation that emerged was very interesting as the group had to tease out the differences between culture, ethnicity and identity before we could really define what it was exactly that was important to preserve.
A comment made by a woman who has taught manners and etiquette all her life cut across all subjects and seemed particularly applicable to arts and culture practice. She said her mother always emphasized that she and her siblings were to always consider themselves as sharing something rather than giving because both parties gained from sharing whereas one party always lost something in giving.
The second session I attended didn’t have an announced topic and instead employed some of the prompts provided by the On The Table organizers.
The third session was lead by a group that is trying to educate people about the state budget and how it is allocated. That conversation was focused largely on where the priorities of the society should be rather than talking specifically about the state budget. Those materials were available as hand outs to review at home.
Below is the prompt card from the session yesterday. If you were interested in doing something similar, you might check out the Chicago Community Trust On The Table website. I had read somewhere that they started the effort which has been replicated elsewhere. Certainly, you might want to search out the websites of the different communities that have hosted these events. Every community is different so some iterations may match your community better than Chicago’s.