STEPHANIE HACKE | Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, 10:27 p.m.
Gathered around a table inside the Brentwood Library, 10 South Hills residents shared a potluck dinner and discussed strengths and weaknesses of their community with the goal of finding ways to make it better.
Across the South Hills from Oct. 15 to 19, 100 similar conversations occurred at other libraries, churches, nonprofits and businesses, totaling 1,000 people sharing their thoughts and ideas.
Sponsored by the Jefferson Regional Foundation and Jefferson Community Collaborative, “Around the Table South,” was launched as a way for South Hills residents to make connections, share ideas and inspire action among people who live and work in the area.
“It’s a really interesting way to do community engagement and collect the insights and voices of residents,” said Mary Phan-Gruber, executive director of the nonprofit Jefferson Regional Foundation, a grant-making organization dedicated to investing in the health and vitality of the communities served by Jefferson Hospital in the South Hills and lower Mon Valley.
Phan-Gruber learned about a similar program when attending the Knight Media Forum in Miami this February. The Chicago Community Trust started a program where they hold small group conversations over meals to learn more about the needs of the community. Their program occurs in one day and brings as many as 50,000 people to tables across the city.
Phan-Gruber wanted to bring similar conversations to the South Hills.
“It’s a really effective way to reach even more voices in the community and get more input,” she said. “It’s a little different than a town hall meeting. When you sit at a table with a small group of folks and together you are really talking about your community, it’s a much deeper conversation.”
Each host chose who they would invite to the table for the meal-time chat. While most conversations focused on ways to create a healthier and safer community, some hosts raised topics specific to their own neighborhoods.
At the Brentwood library event on Oct. 16, conversation centered around educational opportunities attendees would like to be made available on a variety of topics from nutrition to parenting.
“I love that something that’s happening during this conversation is that we’re teaching each other,” said Tracy O’Neill, senior customer services librarian, who hosted the program.
The group also discussed the growing local business community, the availability of public transportation and the opioid epidemic.
At Pleasant Hills Public Library, a group of 10 volunteers, staff members and regular patrons shared their thoughts about the community over Chipotle burrito bowls and chips and salsa.
Those attending agreed they love the borough’s smalltown feel, where everybody knows each other. They like the quiet neighborhood and appreciate the police and public works departments.
The challenges, they agreed, are the lack of recreation facilities and the growing elderly population.
“I think this whole thing is pretty neat,” said Amanda Neely, adult program coordinator.
The hope is that those attending each table conversation get a new perspective and understanding of community issues, Phan-Gruber said. And then, they take action.
Jefferson Regional Foundation will collect and publish results from the conversations in early 2019.
“This is a huge initiative,” O’Neill said. “They’re going to get information from the ground floor level for this.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.