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Your Voice Matters

Group of adults talking at cafe table

What can we do together to create a stronger community? That was the seemingly simple, yet decidedly complex question posed to nearly 6,000 Summit and Medina county residents who participated in On the Table Greater Akron on Oct. 3.

The concept: Register to host a group of friends, family members, colleagues or even strangers over a meal to tackle the important question of how we can improve our community - together.

While the idea was new to Greater Akron, On the Table first started in Chicago in 2014 and has since been replicated in cities across the country. Akron Community Foundation was one of 10 community foundations selected to lead the initiative this year, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

During the event, residents from every corner of the community gathered in small groups to discuss pressing civic issues. More than 540 of these meaningful conversations took place in schools, parks, churches, restaurants, office lunchrooms and family dining rooms throughout the region.

And the discussions were as diverse as the people gathered around the tables. No topic was off limits, with conversations ranging from public safety, jobs, crime and racial divides to the opiate epidemic, arts, education and transportation.

Gaining Momentum

By the time On the Table kicked off, more than 30 organizations had already committed to participating as super hosts by agreeing to host 15 or more conversations. Churches, school systems and nonprofits alike signed up to host discussions in Akron and throughout surrounding communities such as Hudson, Tallmadge and Portage Lakes. Involvement in the initiative started at the top, with Summit County and the City of Akron registering as super hosts early on.

Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, who also serves as vice chair of the community foundation's board, led a countywide effort to engage leaders of other Summit County communities to ensure a broad range of voices would be heard outside of the traditional Akron footprint.

Keeping an ear to the ground in each community is an important part of her job, and Shapiro said she is interested to see how the themes that emerge from conversations throughout the county compare to the issues discussed within her own administration.

"Transportation. Education. Opiates. How do you take these big issues and boil them down to something that is practical?" Shapiro asked. "We have a lot of folks that work, for example, on the opiate issue. But is it really coordinated in getting us where we need to go? I look forward to hearing what other people think so that those of us that might be in a position of being able to structure something have feedback from across the population."

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who personally hosted a group of city staffers from various departments, said he is eager to review the results from the community at large.

"I think you make better decisions with better data," Horrigan said. "And (hearing from people directly) is the best data that you can get, period."

Digging Deeper

For South Street Ministries, Oct. 3 could have been just another Tuesday. The grassroots organization has been bringing unlikely people together for conversation, mentorship and guidance for much of its 20-year existence.

"We do value conversation and bringing people from different backgrounds together," said Executive Director Joe Tucker, who added that discussions at the nonprofit's Front Porch Cafe in South Akron run the gamut from race and local food to re-entry for formerly incarcerated residents.

"This is the work we do in our day-to-day, so it came very naturally for us to step into this (On the Table initiative)," said Amber Cullen, communications director at South Street Ministries.

"As for myself, I believe in the power of conversation and the power of listening to transform and change individuals and systems," said Cullen, who recalled an inspiring conversation she had with an intergenerational group of women. "Hearing the women that were older than me process their own questions about vocation, identity and life gave me comfort that I'm not alone. I didn't expect that deep spiritual connection with strangers, simply (through) conversation."

Like Cullen's experience, some of the most candid discussions at On the Table took place among strangers. Several host organizations opened their conversations to the general public to attract a broader cross section of people and ideas. At the Ellet library, a diverse group of attendees discussed the changing dynamics of community connectedness. They noted that while older generations tend to be more neighborhood-focused, younger generations are more concerned with national and global issues, often missing what goes on in their own backyards.

Meanwhile, officials in Hudson - another super host - dedicated the entire city's conversations to the opiate epidemic, echoing the growing chorus of stories shared at tables throughout Summit and Medina counties about this public health crisis.

"You can't arrest everybody, and you can't put everybody in jail," said one local resident, whose group met at the Summit County Courthouse. "It's blowing up our communities. Children are left being raised by their grandparents and aunts and uncles. We've got to invest real dollars and long-term (recovery support) back into people."

Uncovering Solutions

"While we know people participated to have their voice heard, that was just the first step," said John T. Petures Jr., president and CEO of Akron Community Foundation. "Ultimately, they want to see action."

Thousands of surveys from the event are being tabulated by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement. The resulting report will analyze the overarching themes and ideas discussed throughout the day.

"Going forward, the data we gather will help us determine how we can champion these ideas through our proactive grantmaking," Petures said.

But it's not just the community foundation creating change. Individual participants are already taking action steps to improve their communities based on the solutions they discussed and the connections they made at On the Table.

In North Hill, teens from the Akron PeaceMakers program met their counterparts from Warren, Ohio. The groups were surprised to learn both cities have a large population of immigrants and refugees.

For South Street Ministries, one of the most rewarding outcomes was the opportunity to connect with an organization right down the street. The Akron Masjid, a neighborhood Islamic center, hosted its own On the Table conversation.

"This mosque sits on the corner of Summit Lake and South Akron and had not been very involved in any community work or conversations until this year," Tucker explained.

In North Akron, residents discussed practical ways they could positively impact their neighborhood on a personal level, such as teaching resettled neighbors how to use a lawn mower - a task that may be daunting to someone who has never used outdoor lawn equipment before immigrating to the United States.

Even a hot cup of coffee can lead to a creative solution. In Firestone Park, a coffee shop plans to start offering a free cup of joe to police officers to encourage their presence in the neighborhood.

"Change doesn't always have to be a massive undertaking," said Petures. "We believe the simple act of talking to one another, understanding one another, and helping one another can create powerful change for our community. And we're already seeing the results of that."

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