More than 200 members of the business and nonprofit communities gathered at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center hotel on a recent morning to discuss some of the region’s most pressing issues over breakfast.
Topics such as racism, educational disparities, homelessness and criminal justice reform were all up for conversation.
The community stakeholders in that room were among an estimated 10,000 individuals to engage in an intentional conversation over a meal on Oct. 10 as part of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s On the Table event.
The second-year initiative is centered on the simple premise that good things happen when diverse groups of people gather for meaningful discussion about improving the community.
GMF leaders acknowledge that the idea of sharing a meal and conversation isn’t particularly novel.
But, they contend, in a time when dialogue is increasingly exchanged through screens and discussions often take place within echo chambers, gathering people together for a face-to-face discussion is needed more than ever.
“It’s powerful in its simplicity,” said Marcus White, vice president of civic engagement for the GMF.
That’s what GMF leaders heard from first-year participants in 2017, and it convinced them of the need to bring it back for a second year.
The timing of the inaugural On the Table aligned with several major events nationally and locally.
“A year ago, there was a desire to have positive civil discussion about our communities and issues facing our communities,” White said. “We wanted this to be an effort where people meet new folks and have the opportunity to share what they love about the community, what they’re passionate about and what they can do to improve the community. I think the event met those needs.”
In its first year, more than 5,400 people participated in face-to-face discussions in about 200 locations throughout Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties.
Participants skewed female, with women making up 69 percent of attendees.
They also resoundingly gravitated toward topics of race, equity and inclusion. Race emerged within the discussions at 81 percent of tables last year, according to participant surveys.
“Discussions around racial equity and education, those were clear themes for us,” White said. “Just about everyone in our region is keenly aware of not only the segregation, but also the disparities that our region has. The fact that tables themselves were getting around to issues of race and equity was really encouraging.”
Education, ranging from early childhood through K-12, higher education and workforce training, also came up in many discussions, along with transportation, poverty and other systemic issues.
The decentralized structure of the event makes it somewhat difficult to track its impact. GMF leaders point to a handful of new initiatives that emerged from conversations last year.
A discussion at St. Ann Center’s new north side campus last year centered on the question, “How do we draw out the talent in our community?” Connections stemming from that conversation led to the launch of a monthly First Fridays 4 Business networking group, encouraging greater collaboration and support for entrepreneurs on Milwaukee’s north side.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks and nonprofit America SCORES Milwaukee teamed up last year for a discussion about holistic coaching practices for the city’s youth. It led to the official launch at this year’s event of the Milwaukee Sports Alliance, an effort to train coaches in the Milwaukee area on trauma-informed care.
GMF leaders said they continue to hear about new initiatives that trace their origins back to last year’s event.
“For planners and sponsors, it’s a different kind of thing to put an event out there and let people do what they will with it,” White said. “But I think that’s what allows for relationship building. We might have our own ideas, but we want this to be as organic and authentic as possible. The core value of On the Table is that it’s a vehicle for relationship building and finding ways to take action together to improve the quality of life for everyone in our region.”
The participation of the region’s business community is particularly important, White said. Having conversations about improving the community is another way for companies to give back, he said.
“Of course, we believe, and it’s at the heart of who we are, that supporting nonprofits financially is key to their success; that is paramount,” White said. “And people giving of their time is also essential for nonprofits to be successful. But this is about an even different kind of giving. It’s about sharing our hospitality and our spirit of invitation. It’s not unique, but we do think it’s a special and a rare opportunity to build the kind of community we all want.”
The GMF rolled out new resources for this year’s On the Table, responding to feedback from the inaugural event, including Spanish language resources and On the Table lesson plans to encourage more participation among classrooms.
Also this year, participants can apply for small amounts
of funding to help bring their ideas to fruition. GMF
expects to award between 20 and 40 “Ideas to Action” grants, which range in size from $500 to $2,500. Beginning Oct. 10, anyone who participated in discussions (one individual per table, or a group or organization) could apply for the funding to take action on the ideas developed during their conversations.
Gabriel Yeager, 22, didn’t attend the inaugural event, but this year he volunteered as a facilitator of a table at NEWaukee’s “mega-table” community dinner, held in the rotunda of City Hall.
Yeager, a recent graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s architecture program, was ready to see where the discussion led but said he might steer the discussion toward the topic of interest to him: preserving public spaces in Milwaukee.
That discussion began to emerge at another conversation he participated in at The Marcus Corp.’s On the Table “Super Chat,” held earlier that morning at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.
“When you see protestors in front of city hall, there is something important about that space,” Yeager said. “It’s a platform to communicate what they need to communicate. I think it’s important to maintain public spaces and design Milwaukee in a way that enables people to voice their thoughts.”
Laurie Bertrand, the American Cancer Society’s executive director in Wisconsin, attended NEWaukee’s On the Table discussion in hopes of connecting with more people about her organization’s work.
“Community health is important and there are a lot of opportunities for the American Cancer Society to bring partners together around having an active community and healthy community … Everyone has a way to contribute to the community and make a difference. I think it’s a great way to see what other people’s interests are and connect some dots to work to make a difference on issues that impact everyone,” she said.
Yeager said a discussion like On the Table is just the first step – albeit an important one – toward bringing about change.
“Face-to-face conversation is almost a dying breed,” he said. “To have an event that actually forces people to talk with strangers and neighbors and talk about the issues that we hold dear and want to see improvement on, and also carry that conversation throughout the year – this is a starting point. I think what comes out of the discussions gives us a framework for what we need to work on over the next year. And then we’ll come back and do it again.”