When I first started to share my concept of a community conversation about our region, friends and colleagues responded, “Don’t we do this every day?” That reaction holds within itself the reasons why On the Table works.
As a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, I worked with faculty at MIT School of Urban Planning to research how “event-places” give cities meaning. The theory of event-places considers how places, events and objects interact to create a shared sense of our community, to unite us.
Three key elements underlie a successful civic event that engages everyone:
Interweaving form and activity. Successful civic experiences create a dialogue between people and their physical setting; one is incomplete without the other. On the Table and similar programs carve out a moment that is separate from everyday life, yet within a familiar community setting. Inside the physical space of the event, we ask people to have intimate conversations that give everyone an opportunity to hear and share, developing a sense of reciprocity and trust.
Locating the conversations around a meal makes the experience more intense by engaging the senses. The aromas, sounds and flavors associated with the shared meal help awaken primal emotional responses of security and intimacy, sparking deeper bonds that supplement and cement the connections we establish in conversation.
Building social capital. As people build these new, shared memories and experiences of the event-places, new bridges and bonds are formed that, writ large, will strengthen our city and region.
Connecting in small groups, we engender emotional connections and build the social capital that strengthens communities. Knitting those social fabrics together is critical to that process, and our sense of history and community continuity helps to bond us.
Evoking memory and continuity. Whenever I create a new public program, I begin by asking, “What is our history?”
In preparation for The Chicago Community Trust’s centennial year, our team processed and reviewed 100 years’ worth of materials, and performed over 100 interviews with our stakeholders. From this rich vein of inspiration emerged the historic roots of the On the Table experience:
- The birth of the Trust, through the efforts of Norman and Albert Harris. The father and son who founded Harris Trust and Savings Bank saw a vibrant, emerging metropolis—but felt strongly that some were being left behind. Engaging with like-minded Chicagoans over meals in private clubs, homes and offices, they built a popular mandate for a strategic, creative philanthropy that would benefit the entire community.
- The Chicago Dinners of the 1990s, which brought together African-American and white stakeholders to discuss race relations. Like so many successful events, the Chicago Dinners used the shared sensory connection of a meal to forge new bonds.
To build on these traditions, we expanded beyond focusing on a pre-defined topic with our existing stakeholders. The unique form and local flavor that would ultimately define On the Table came from embracing the community voice in an open-source event.
As people build new, shared memories and experiences of the event-places, new bridges and bonds are formed that will strengthen our city and region. Connecting in small groups, we build the social capital that strengthens communities.
Successful civic experiences create a dialogue between people and their physical setting; one is incomplete without the other.
But, when a civic event event truly resonates in the popular imagination, it can have impact that extends even beyond its time and place. In the case of On the Table, we have been excited to see neighborhoods, businesses and nonprofits beginning to incorporate the event into the rhythms of their own work, weaving it into the threads of connection among the people they serve.
As we approach the third On the Table event on Tuesday, May 10, we are working to build on this sense of shared civic morale. We invite everyone participating in this year’s mealtime conversations to listen for the possibility of connection—to find gaps they can close, divisions they can bridge, new ideas they can make possible through a new unity in our region.