Thousands of people in Summit and Medina counties met in small groups Tuesday to talk about everything from homelessness and addiction to art and education. The gatherings are part of a community engagement series called On the Table.
The conversations started over cups of coffee and tea in community centers, restaurants, libraries and kitchens across greater Akron.
People talked about things like trying to attract the film industry to Northeast Ohio, the need for more interconnected bike trails in Summit County, where to find job training and, of course, the opiate crisis.
“Listen, the first step is talking about things," Mari-Lynne Evans said at one of several tables at the James S. Knight Center in downtown Akron.
She said this event, which literally brings voices to the table, is a good place to start.
“You know it’s not enough just to sit at home and talk about these things and worry about these things. It’s important to get out into our communities and talk to the physicians. Talk to the parents. Talk to kids in high school about these things.”
John Petures is president of the Akron Community Foundation, which partnered with dozens of businesses and groups around the city to organize the event.
“As a father, as a grandfather, (we) think about the future and what makes this community and these people so special. You have to speak up. You have to have a voice. You have to be able to communicate to friends and neighbors.”
The foundation had staff at many sites to help spark conversations about what’s working in the community and what’s not.
“These discussions are free flowing. The role of the facilitator is just to engage people and to talk about what excites them about the community. What has them fearful in the community? What ways do they think people are working together? (Where) have they seen successes and how we might replicate those in other areas of the community?” Petures said.
The foundation initially hoped for about a thousand participants, but saw nearly six times that many register.
“So we’re really proud that the community’s response has been so overwhelmingly positive.”
The ideas, comments and concerns shared at these tables will be collected and sent to the University of Illinois at Chicago for analysis.
The foundation plans to use the On the Table data to better serve the community.
“Nonprofits that are doing those wonderful jobs, come to us, apply for resources. We hope that these messages that have come back from a wide variety of audiences today will help be a driver and help us guide and really help the people help us decide what’s most important to keep strong in the community," Petures said.
On the Table is a way to break bread with neighbors and talk openly about sometimes difficult subjects.
For Akronites gathered around those tables like Mari-Lynne Evans, the subjects may be difficult, but the conversations are necessary.
“There’s nothing like a human touch. There’s nothing like an empathetic person listening. It has a great impact," She said.
The event is funded through a grant from the Knight Foundation. It’s one of 10 nationwide community forums in places like Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Gary, Ind., and Lexington, Kent.