This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune
Next Monday, May 12, more than 10,000 Chicagoans who care about the city will sit down for a meal at various locations to talk about Chicago’s future.
Some will be friends or acquaintances. Others will be strangers randomly assigned by organizers. Some dinners will have a focus, such as violence prevention or homelessness. Others will not.
“This has gone viral on us,” said Terry Mazany, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Chicago Community Trust, which is organizing the event, called On the Table, as a celebration of its 99th anniversary. “We’ve given up trying to control it or know everybody who is hosting.”
The concept of meeting up with strangers to brainstorm ideas for how to improve a city is not new. In decades past, the Trust and the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago partnered to create “The Chicago Dinners: A Night of Unity” to discuss race relations at tables across the city.
But that was long before the advent of social media, which has made it far easier to convene large numbers of strangers. And On the Table has proved so popular that the Trust closed down guest registration April 12 and has turned to online retailer Groupon for a lifeline.
Starting Monday, people who want to participate in On the Table but have not registered will be able to go togroupon.com/deals/on-the-table and pay $25 to $55 to attend a restaurant-based conversation, moderated by a member of the Social Enterprise Alliance. Meanwhile, the Trust is still looking for people to host free dinners; 973 hosts had registered via onthetable2014.org as of midmorning Friday.
Among them are friends Beth Silverman and Lisa Skolnik, who are both in public relations and hosting the dinner at Skolnik’s Lakeview condo.
“We have eight people coming, and we don’t know any of them,” Silverman said. “We’re going to introduce topics we’re passionate about. Lisa is very big into (Chicago Public Schools) and people living in the city sending their children to public schools. Me, I’m passionate about funding for the arts.”
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley and his wife, Bernadette Keller, are hosting a dinner for 10 people at their home focused on end-of-life decisions. Keller donated one of her kidneys in 1998 and is a member of the Chicago Transplant Ethics Commission. She is advocating for a city- or statewide database of end-of-life directives, so that if something were to happen to a Chicagoan visiting Peoria, the doctors there would know the patient’s wishes.
“Bill’s first response was, ‘That’s a depressing topic,'” Keller said. “But it’s not. … It’s about how we can do things better for patients and make it work for hospitals and the city.”
Monika Collins, development director at the Illinois Humanities Council, decided on a 50-50 split of strangers and invited guests from the food industry for her organization’s dinner. The topic is “food as a driver for social change” and will be held at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar in Bridgeport.
“We’ve had the Trust randomly assign us 10 people, and then we’ve invited people from 10 organizations, and we’re going to mingle them,” Collins said. “And we intentionally picked that location because Bridgeport has had a mixed history in terms of diversity and diversity relations.”
Mazany said the idea for On the Table evolved out of a desire to do something different for the group’s anniversary celebration. In previous years, the Trust, which had nearly $2.1 billion in assets in fiscal year 2013 and is one of the largest donors to charities in the region, threw a big, invite-only party at Millennium Park’s Harris Theater. This year, the Trust wanted to do something that allowed for more community input. And after settling on this idea, it hired outside marketers, Web designers and a public relations firm to put the effort on steroids.
“We’re gathering people with some resources to put behind actions, to get some things done,” said private chef Julius Russell, who will be hosting and cooking a dinner for 20 at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts with his wife, Jada. “And that’s easier to reach as far as a destination when the food is good. … Through putting food on the table, we can put issues on the table. As cliche as it sounds, it fits.”
Afterward, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago will conduct an online survey of participants, asking them to share the best ideas from the dinners. Mazany will present some of those ideas at a June speech to the City Club of Chicago. A few participants will get to share their ideas onstage at Chicago Ideas Week in October. And, Mazany hopes, another handful of ideas will go into development. The Trust is recruiting innovation and design firms to donate their time to help dinner sponsors act on promising ideas.
“In the past, we’d do (strategic planning) by working with a demographer to understand population trends,” Mazany said. “It’s one of the ways we anticipated the growth of the Latino community. But now we’re looking to start with community voices, and all of this info will inform our grant priorities.”
At the end of the interview, Mazany recalled a quote he had heard recently from Wes Moore, the author and U.S. Army veteran: You “can never have an honest conversation if only a sliver of the population is part of that conversation.”