Tom Eblen

More than 11,000 sign up for Lexington’s ‘public meeting with nobody in charge’

Some of the more than 300 conversation hosts for the On the Table project checked in at an orientation event March 1 at the Keeneland Entertainment Center.
Some of the more than 300 conversation hosts for the On the Table project checked in at an orientation event March 1 at the Keeneland Entertainment Center. teblen@herald-leader.com

When Chicago held its first “On the Table” civic engagement project three years ago, about 12,000 people participated. Lexington hosts its first one March 15, and it may be on track to blow away the Windy City.

Based on registrations so far, at least 11,000 Lexingtonians are planning to participate.

“This is a very big deal,” Mayor Jim Gray told more than 300 “conversation hosts” who gathered March 1 at Keeneland to learn more about the event. Gray noted that with seven of 15 Urban County Council members in attendance that night, they almost had a quorum.

On the Table is a simple but powerful idea: On a single day, hosts invite a small group of friends, neighbors or co-workers to talk over food about Lexington, local issues that concern them and ideas for improving the community. The ideal group size is eight to 12 people, organizers said.

Conversations can be held anywhere, including homes, restaurants or churches. Fayette County Public Schools is hosting a number of conversations among faculty and students at its schools. Other “super hosts” include the NAACP , Calvary Baptist Church, Good Foods Co-op and Commerce Lexington.

There is still time to sign up to host or participate in a conversation. Go to: Bgcf.org/onthetable.

At the end of each small conversation, a participant will fill out a sheet with the group’s discussion topics, notes and ideas. Then they will snap a cellphone photo of it and email it to the Blue Grass Community Foundation, which is coordinating the event along with Leadership Lexington.

Participants also will be encouraged to fill out a survey to offer further input. Information from all conversations and surveys will be collected, organized and published for use by any community organization that might find it helpful.

Organizers also are urging conversation groups to share their ideas and experiences widely on social media using the hashtag: #onthetableLEX.

One organization planning to use information gathered through On the Table is the city’s planning division, which has begun work on the 2018 update of Lexington’s comprehensive land-use plan. (More information: ImagineLexington.com.)

Chris Woodall, the city’s new long-range planning manager, hopes some On the Table groups will decide to talk about growth and planning issues. So far, the city has held five public meetings on the comp plan that have attracted about 200 attendees. This event has the potential to dramatically expand input, Woodall said.

On the Table was the brainchild of Cheryl Hughes, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Chicago Community Trust. She organized the first one in 2014 as that philanthropic organization prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

The experience was so powerful for everyone, she said, that On the Table has become an annual event. It has grown steadily each year, and the day of conversations held last May had 55,000 participants.

“It’s like a big public meeting with nobody in charge,” Hughes said. “It’s a day where instead of talking about whatever, we talk about our community and our commitment to it. It can be very powerful.”

Hughes said public feedback gathered from On the Table conversations has transformed the Chicago Community Trust, prompting it to rewrite its strategic plan and focus more on the issues Chicago residents said they cared most about. Many other Chicago organizations also have used On the Table to guide their work.

The biggest issues that emerged in Chicago’s conversations involved race and social inequity, Hughes said. Several organizations, including the Catholic Archdiocese and the Chicago Police Department, have used On the Table ideas to fight the neighborhood violence that has become epidemic in parts of the city.

Lisa Adkins, president of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, hopes Lexington’s On the Table experience also will prove useful.

“We hope it will create a diverse cache of information that we haven’t had access to before,” said Adkins, noting that the event was quickly organized so the city could make full use of it in the 2018 comprehensive plan update.

Funding for On the Table is coming from the foundation, Leadership Lexington, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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