On October 4, 2017, over 2,000 people across the southeast Michigan region gathered in small groups to share food and discuss how to make their communities places where young people can grow and thrive.

On the Table was a community engagement initiative with a simple premise: on one day, people gather in small groups to share food and conversation, discussing how to make their community a strong, vibrant place. Hosting an On the Table conversation is easy, and anyone can do it, no matter their role, background, or experience. Holding these conversations on one day creates an important, collective pause for civic reflection and dialogue.

On the Table conversations generated several outcomes:

  • Participants had the opportunity to connect with people they’ve never met before, or connect with community members they already know in new ways.
  • Conversations inspired people to take action to address challenges or seize opportunities in their communities.
  • Conversations generated a set of data that anyone can use to make decisions in their communities. After the conversations happened, participants were invited to share their outcomes by taking a post-survey. Survey results have been compiled and shared publicly.

On the Table was started by the Chicago Community Trust in 2014 and has since gained significant traction, growing from several thousand participants in its first year to over 60,000 participants this year. In 2017, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation organized a cohort of eight community foundations to pilot the model in other cities and regions. The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan was part of this group, and with support from the Knight Foundation, brought On the Table to southeast Michigan in fall 2017.

CFSEM’s On the Table initiative had two significant differences from others in the Knight cohort:

  • Regional: Most foundations’ On the Table initiatives had a smaller geographic footprint, focusing on one city or metro area. Because CFSEM serves all seven counties in the southeast Michigan region, our On the Tableinitiative was much larger in geographic scale, encompassing all 4,636 square miles in the region.
  • Youth-Focused: The majority of foundations used the Chicago Community Trust’s model, focusing their On the Table conversations on “community” more broadly. Because of CFSEM’s long history of supporting work in the youth development space as well as the Foundation’s interest in collecting ideas and information on this topic, we opted to focus our conversations around the region’s young people.

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