Walkabout: Big Table Event to Repeat and Expand in 2020

Walkabout: Big Table event to repeat and expand in 2020

The autumn before, five days of meal-sharing brought 1,025 people together around 106 tables in municipalities south of Pittsburgh for Around the Table South.

In 2020, Leadership Pittsburgh and the Jefferson Regional Foundation are teaming up on March 18 for what will be a one-day Leadership Pittsburgh event and seven days of Around the Table South. The latter already has 72 people who want to host an event.

“The beauty of the combination is that it expands their reach and our reach,” Aradhna Oliphant, CEO and president of Leadership Pittsburgh, said. “Isn’t that what community is all about? Community is beyond yourself.”

The concept originated in Chicago and has been emulated in other cities with the goal of reinforcing community spirit and building networks beyond the usual kith and kin.

2020 also presents the opportunity for meal hosts to promote the U.S. census.

Mary Phan-Gruber, CEO of the Jefferson Regional Foundation, said Around the Table South meal hosts will share information on filling out the census form.

The Census Bureau is encouraging people to complete the form online, but among the hard-to-count populations it identifies — elders, immigrants and low-income people among them — many do not have easy access to computers and may be least trustful of the process.

This is a big concern, because the census count determines how much federal money each area gets.

The Jefferson Community Collaborative — a network that includes nonprofits, civic groups, libraries, churches, human services providers and environmental groups — organized and hosted the bulk of the meals in Around the Table South, she said.

The target area includes McKeesport, Clairton, Baldwin Borough, Whitehall, South Park, Bethel Park and West Jefferson Hills.

More than 90% of participants surveyed responded, “Let’s do it again!” More than 80% who took the Big Table survey thought their conversations led to good ideas they could act on.

Hosts of the meals were asked to offer guidance so the discussions had community import.

The top five topics at the Big Table were education, race relations, volunteerism, youth needs and poverty. The priority topics of Around the Table South were mental health and addiction, education, equity and social inclusion, and youth development.

The Big Table I attended at a friend’s house in California-Kirkbride on the North Side brought a dozen people together, none of whom I knew except the host.

It was fun and it offered hope that most people care about the welfare of others. The food was great, the talk serious. I most remember the discussion about disaffection, alienation and the ugly cleft of politics, which led us to talk about everyday kindness to strangers, acts as simple as saying hello to someone on the sidewalk holding a “need help” sign, giving a hand to a woman trying to fold a stroller on the bus.

It was energizing to have a discussion, after dinner, on the host’s back porch, with a new acquaintance who disagrees with me politically, someone I had liked upon meeting. I have many friendly acquaintances and a few friends whose views on issues differ from mine, but this was a stranger. He was reasonable, as was I, and I can’t help but believe that the atmosphere and the intention behind that shared meal were designed to imbue us with goodwill. We had both made yummy noises as we ate, laughed at the same things and clinked our glasses together.

A few tables went beyond the getting-to-know-you and planned projects. One, specifically, was a caregiver support group, Ms. Phan-Gruber said.

Jefferson Regional Foundation awarded mini-grants for 11 proposals that came out of the meals, including help to the Bhutanese community with the census, access to free diapers for low-income families and workshops for in-home day care operators to become more capable.

A quarter of the people surveyed from Around the Table South said they had gotten back in touch with people from their table afterward.

If a few people followed up to act on something they care about, their community is better. But if no one had, there was still a lingering feeling of possibility.

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Twitter@dnelsonjones. 

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