How to Get 11,000 People Talking

On Wednesday, March 15, at the invitation of Blue Grass Community Foundation in Lexington, Kentucky, 11,000 citizens joined with their neighbors, colleagues and friends, over a cup of coffee or a meal, to discuss the city’s quality of life – what’s makes it great and what could be done to make it even better – more sustainable, just, safer, stronger and vibrant.

On the Table, a new community engagement initiative sponsored by the community foundation, invited everyone to participate by hosting or attending a mealtime conversation. The result: more than 1,000 small group conversations in a single day, just 10-12 friends gathered around a table with simple food or drink, having an informal conversation about what matters most as they discussed Lexington’s future.

Why On the Table? At the community foundation, we have a commitment to growing more generous, engaged and vibrant communities. We know big ideas can spring from small conversations and people invest in what they help create. When we come together as a community to listen to and learn from each other, we have the power to impact both neighborhoods and lives. That’s what On the Table is all about.

We believe now, more than ever, that each person’s voice matters and that there is a need and desire for civic and civil discourse. The community foundation played a vital role by providing the platform of On the Table to help make that happen in Lexington. On the Table was an opportunity to talk about the issues, big and small, that impact our quality of life and that of the city.  As a community engagement initiative, it invited Lexingtonians not only to come together and talk, but to listen, collaborate, become more civically aware and involved and be more committed to our community.

Many of the issues we face today don’t offer quick fixes. On the contrary, progress will only result when residents, organizations, businesses and government work together to make contributions that add up to a greater solution that we can achieve on our own.

At the community foundation, we believe in the power of conversation to clarify, energize and organize people to do things for good. On the Table is a starting place for meaningful conversation where everyone is welcome.

So, what did we talk about and where did people meet? The conversation starters were simple. What do you love about Lexington? What needs to change? Most importantly, what are your ideas to solve Lexington’s most pressing challenges? Participants had the opportunity to discuss all these topics and more. You can check out our online toolkit for hosts, including sample conversation starters and other host resources.

The key to On the Table is maximum flexibility.  Anyone could be a host or guest, and there was no charge to participate. Hosts organized mealtime conversations in their homes or offices. Others hosted gatherings at local restaurants, libraries, schools, community centers and places of worship. It is the conversation that matters, not the cuisine; some meals were donuts and coffee, potluck, bring your own brown bag, soup and salad or take-out pizza. It was entirely up to the host.

With 11,000 people participating in an On the Table conversation on March 15, we more than doubled our initial goal of 5,000. We attribute that to the fact that everyone was welcome at our table. In addition to adults, families, youth, schools and universities were encouraged to participate. We also focused significant outreach efforts on people and neighborhoods that are too often not invited to the table, with funding support from The Kresge Foundation.

What happens next? Every participant was invited to give immediate feedback via social media using the hashtag #onthetableLEX. Participants were also invited to take a post-conversation survey. Later this summer, we will issue a report highlighting the results, including the ideas, conversations, themes and outcomes, which will coincide with the celebration of our 50th anniversary.  The information will help the community foundation identify future priorities and strategies, and will also be used by city government to inform its comprehensive planning process.

We are big believers in the power of partnership. Much credit is due to the Chicago Community Trust, which is the innovator behind On the Table. The Trust will host its fourth Chicagoland-wide On the Table in May. Also, this would not have been possible without the support of the Knight Foundation, which is committed to building informed, engaged communities.  Lexington is part of Knight Foundation’s new, national initiative to replicate On the Table in 10 cities across the United States.  Nine more replication projects are underway. Finally, On the Table was made possible by the efforts of many committed local partners including the city of Lexington, its Division of Planning, Fayette County Public Schools and Leadership Lexington.

Lisa Ashner Adkins, JD, is the president/CEO of Blue Grass Community Foundation.


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