When was the last time you sat down for a meal with complete strangers to discuss common concerns from different perspectives? When was the last time you sat down for a meal with complete strangers – full stop?
An innovative and successful local initiative aims to do just that, and it’s back again for the second year. Last year, led by the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, Macon launched its first On the Table event. The idea is this: Local hosts (whether institutions, civic groups, government leaders or regular folks) sponsor a conversation about an issue facing our community. And we Macon folk, both literally and metaphorically, show up for one another.
Last year, in Macon-Bibb County alone, 5,000 people participated in more than 600 events from breakfast meetings on criminal justice reform to community dinners to talk about how to help our homeless brothers and sisters. I was fortunate to be able to attend several events, and I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with people I’d never met before.
We talked about problems facing Macon-Bibb and features we’re proud of—schools, transportation, race, health care, food access, the arts, poverty, economic growth, and most of all, community engagement. Looking out across the city from picnic tables on Coleman Hill (conveniently next door to my office), I had a moment of hope and excitement that so many people care enough to schedule time to speak honestly and vulnerably about our hopes and concerns. Surely, a number of us have different priorities or opinions, but the conversation felt on the whole more unifying than divisive. The act of coming together with the common goal of community improvement was unifying, even if some of our perspectives and approaches differed.
The ultimate goal, of course, is for the conversations to grow into action, and a number of local initiatives grew out of last year’s event. The Community Foundation of Central Georgia even made small grants to fund projects that included job fairs, transportation assistance, strategies to improve access to food, and a symposium on mental health issues.
This year, the event is scheduled for Wednesday, October 30, with a number of meetups planned for around Macon throughout the day. Some will be devoted to particular topics, including: education, community, art and culture, health and wellness, and youth. Other tables simply aim for an open general discussion.
All hosts receive a toolkit with sign-up sheets, stylish stickers and some prompt questions to get the conversations going. One question asks, “What is the single most important issue or opportunity in our community or your neighborhood right now and why?”
We may not always agree on Macon’s major weaknesses or strengths — much less how to approach those issues. But On the Table gave us all a low threshold chance to speak with one another about our own ideas, to sit with one another, to break bread and to be in community together. This year promises to be even bigger in both numbers and impact, and it is one of a number of efforts that makes me feel hopeful for our city.
The event is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information and to sign up to join one or more tables on Oct. 30, visit www.onthetablemacon.com. You can search for a table by pins on a map of Macon, by time of day and by topic.
Sarah Gerwig is a law professor and word enthusiast raising her two sons in Macon.