Never underestimate the power of a simple conversation.
That’s one of the many messages being pushed by a group of community leaders working to bring the national “On the Table” movement to the Lowcountry this fall.
The impact of the “On the Table” initiative was experienced firsthand by Daniel Island resident Meg Bornstein, who serves on the board of non-profit SC Strong, an organization based in North Charleston that helps provide rehabilitation for criminal offenders. Bornstein conducted a sit-down session with the group last spring as part of a pilot program for the effort.
“The energy was palpable,” said Bornstein. “They were so engaged and so wanting to help…There was not a silent guy in the bunch. It was almost a two-hour meeting and their biggest thing was about at-risk youth. They didn’t want people to ‘end up like us.’”
The group decided by the end of the meeting to bring food to kids during the summer months from a retired food truck they had.
“And it was from asking one or two beginning questions,” added Bornstein.
Herein is the basic idea behind the “On the Table” project, a citizen-driven process to get people from different backgrounds talking and to identify issues and suggest solutions. The local pilot project, sponsored by the Library Foundation of the Lowcountry (LFL), was held for the first time in the Charleston region last May with 60 table-top conversations and an estimated 370 participants. The results were more than encouraging, noted Janet Segal, chair of the board of directors for the foundation.
According to an “On the Table Impact Report” compiled by LFL after the sessions, a survey distributed to participants revealed that the vast majority of respondents (98 percent) indicated that they were “somewhat” to “very satisfied” with the quality of the discussion, the diversity participating (84 percent) and the diversity of views expressed (93 percent). And many reported that they are likely to take a specific action regarding a new idea, concern of issue discussed – by building relationships and collaborating, volunteering, conducting research, or becoming politically engaged.
“People were so excited to have hosted,” said Segal. “They said ‘so often when we have friends over we talk about the same stuff…it was so exciting to talk about something of substance.’”
So how does the program work? Participants literally sit around a table in groups (eight to 12 are ideal) and just talk. There is no agenda and it’s not political. Just easy, open-ended questions to get the conversations started, but no right or wrong answers.
“That’s the beauty of this,” added Segal. “People can come to the table to talk about what they want to talk about.”
Why put yourself out there? Because, according to the campaign’s official tag line, “your voice matters.”
“Attendees leave feeling heard, optimistic, and knowing they can make a difference,” states an information packet on the initiative distributed by Lowcountry On the Table.
Since May’s pilot project has been dubbed a success, Segal and her LFL team are working diligently to launch a large-scale regional “On the Table” program on October 4 with a goal of more than 1,000 tables and 10,000 attendees. Bornstein is leading the effort on Daniel Island.
Folks that have hosted “On the Table” meetings in the past say that it quickly takes on a life of its own. Daniel Island Property Owners’ Association Vice President of Community Services Jane Baker took part in the pilot program by hosting a table herself. She invited eight people who didn’t know each other and strived to build a very diverse group.
“It was remarkable, and I started the conversation with ‘let’s talk about something that’s important to each of you, from your neighborhood perspective,’” she said. “And there were so many similarities of what their challenges and interests were.”
Two of them were so inspired by the discussion, added Baker, that they continued it and are working on neighborhood issues in Awendaw. The main difference between the pilot project and the October 4 event is that the upcoming program will include “spark grants” designed to help further issues identified through the conversations.
Because the meetings are organized in smaller groups, “On the Table” representatives notice that people feel more obligated to speak. Topics can cover a wide array of areas, but typically begin with questions that are broad enough to allow the group to lead the conversation.
To Daniel Island resident Jennifer Kula, who took part in a recent discussion at the Daniel Island Library about the event with Segal, Bornstein and other community members, the benefits are numerous. The opportunity to engage with people you might not otherwise talk with is high on the list, said Kula.
“It’s a connection,” she added. “...It’s plugging in in a different way, that you haven’t plugged in before...You’re plugging into community, community interests, community relationships. And that comes in different forms and colors.”
What about those people who may want to have a discussion, but don’t necessarily want to get involved or feel obligated to do more?
“The benefit could be that they actually took a seat,” said Bornstein. “Even that is a big deal.”
Segal noted that the discussion “On the Table” facilitates helps communities interact and empathize with each other.
“There’s all this turf problem,” she observed. “You don’t know anybody outside of your own neighborhood, and to be a true community you need to meet people and share ideas. And, even if you don’t agree, you’ve had an opportunity to meet people of your community.”
Lowcountry On The Table is currently looking to identify those who may be interested in hosting a table on October 4 - from private citizens to local organizations to local businesses. To sign up, or to learn more, visit www.lowcountryonthetable.org or call (843) 608-1223.
ELIZABETH BUSH CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE.