To Build a More Unified Community, ‘Trust the Tables’

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From the beginning, On the Table participants have told us that a key to solving Chicago’s challenges is community engagement and collaboration. Putting the conversation in the hands of residents has been the focus for On the Table since we began—so it follows that this year’s theme is working towards a unified community through collaboration among nonprofits, businesses, government and residents.

This year’s #onthetable2016 theme: unified community. What becomes possible when people work together?

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We are encouraging everyone to think with us about two profound questions we heard from participants last year: What makes a community, and what constitutes action?

From Ideas, to Action, to Connection

Chicago residents have big ideas. At the Trust, we dedicated our 99th anniversary to listening, because we needed the community’s voices to shape the future direction of our work over the next decade and beyond. That first On the Table event, with the theme of ideas for improving community, engaged nearly 12,000 participants who offered over 1,000 ideas for how the Trust could impact our region. From that pool, we selected twenty-five bold ideas to present for review, and ultimately surfaced six big ideas for development into community initiatives.

The success of that event helped the Trust recognize On the Table as the right platform to launch our Centennial year. Our aim was simple: to make Chicagoland the most philanthropic region in the nation, and to celebrate philanthropy in all its forms. And so for our 2015 theme, we invited the second year’s On the Table participants to reflect on their own role within the ecosystem of community change, and to make individual commitments to action.

Through a high-touch strategy to engage our community, we were delighted and humbled to welcome 25,000 participants on that day in May—participants whose eagerness to engage with the community conversation helped the event to trend nationally on Twitter.

“Trust the Tables”

An idea that has defined On the Table from the beginning is “trusting the tables.” Rather than being proscriptive in our approach and assigning specific discussion prompts, our belief is that table hosts and guests can choose how best to frame and conduct their conversations. We have seen again and again throughout the past two years that when we “trust the tables,” the most profound connections and common solutions can emerge.

From this trust, something special has grown: Organizations and hosts have taken the On the Table model and made it their own, developing their own unique lens on the common theme. For example, in 2015, as participants were exploring how we each can take action for the common good, the Kennedy Forum of Illinois hosted more than 100 tables to have a conversation focused on taking action to help end the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders. We could not be happier that this platform is being used to advance and strengthen an organization’s power.

On the Table was conceived as a forum to honor the Trust’s history by engaging the people we serve. This year, we anticipate 50,000 participants taking part in the conversation where we engage with those profound questions: What makes a community? What constitutes action? What becomes possible when people or organizations work together?

An event that doubles its reach every year and draws 50,000 people may seem impressive in scale. But recognizing that all of us who make up that statistics are doing so in small groups, sharing a meal and connecting on an personal level, is the true success of On the Table.

The theme of our conversations will continue to evolve from year to year. But the commitment to listening to individual voices is something that will never change.