This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Throughout the day today, thousands of people across the city participated in a series of roundtable discussions about the challenges facing Philadelphia communities.
“On The Table,” a citywide discussion series managed by the Philadelphia Foundation and the Knight Foundation, assembled 162 community organizations throughout the city to bring people together for a conversation over a meal about specific issues concerning their neighborhoods.
From breakfast until dinner, approximately 3,000 local residents met in libraries, businesses, homes, and other local venues to talk about issues such as the beverage tax, local food and healthy food access, growth strategies for the city, affordable housing, and education.
“The Philadelphia Foundation is very pleased that so many organizations and individuals are taking advantage of this powerful opportunity,” said Pedro Ramos, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Foundation.
“The rich conversations among neighbors, colleagues, and new acquaintances will lift up an array of greater Philadelphia’s needs and aspirations,” he said.
In North Philadelphia, Parent Power, an education advocacy group for parents, hosted a breakfast discussion about the impact race, class, and privilege has on education.
Former School Reform Commissioner and co-founder of Parent Power Sylvia Simms invited her former colleague Marjorie Neff, who resigned from the SRC in November 2016, former chief education officer Dr. Lori Shorr, and a group of about 15 residents from different parts of the city to T.M. Pierce Elementary School.
Quibila Divine, Simms’ sister and co-founder of Parent Power, also attended.
“I’ve had the privilege to meet a lot of folks that a lot of [parents] have not,” Simms said. “So I would like to bring a lot of people and the things that I know to them.”
With a spread of bagels, fruit, pastries, and donuts behind them, the group talked about gentrification, community organizing, and building wealth in low-income black communities for an hour.
Jamie Bracey, director of STEM Education, Outreach, and Research at Temple University, and parent of a seventh-grade student at George Washington Carver High School, said that during this political climate, it is best for local residents to overcome their differences and unify.
“Philadelphia has got to pull together, because, as a sanctuary city […] we’re not going to get the resources we need,” she said. “So this divisiveness is going to get worse unless we come with a shared vision.”
One student, 18-year-old Romao Algarin, a graduate of KIPP Dubois Collegiate Academy, attended with his mother. Algarin, now a student at Kutztown University, said he learned about the ways in which the city is segregated and the efforts to correct it.
“There’s a lot of people here who are trying to fix schools so that black kids [can] get a great education,” he said.
These conversations aren’t just an excuse for people to get together and eat. The Philadelphia Foundation collects data through a survey each participant completes after the discussion to keep a record of the interests of community members.
“We hope it will act as a platform to build a greater community of problem-solvers who will inform public decision-making and city success,” said Patrick Morgan, program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Philadelphia.
At Pierce, Simms said those who participated in Parent Power’s discussion are planning to meet again, independent of the Philadelphia Foundation.
“I think a lot of times people are afraid to have the conversations, but if we never have the conversations how are we going to move forward,” Simms said.
The annual On the Table initiative began in Chicago with the Chicago Community Trust in 2013 as a way to improve civic engagement among city residents. In 2016, the Knight Foundation held an On the Table symposium where over 60 people from 40 cities and 25 states, and Canade were introduced to the initiative.
In February, the Knight Foundation announced that it would invest $1.15 million to bring the program to the 10 cities that it invests in, one of which is Philadelphia. Part of the funds go to toolkits for conversation hosts and marketing for the initiative.