Here’s an idea for our times. Get together. Face to face. Make eye contact not with our screens but with actual humans. Talk about... whatever. Have snacks. Talk some more. Feel free to be a bit earnest, a bit dreamy. Laugh even. Have more snacks, maybe another drink.
This radical proposition comes to us from the Vancouver Foundation, and we at The Tyee love it. So much so that, later this month, we are going to host one of these newfangled get-togethers ourselves. And you are encouraged to host one yourself, too. More about that below.
On the Table is the name of the concept — one day across B.C. when as many folks as possible gather with others to chat about a topic of their choice and nosh in person. That day is Sept. 26, though registration is open for a week afterwards.
You likely have a few questions, so here goes.
What’s the point?
The idea springs from surveys by Vancouver Foundation showing that despite Vancouver’s vaunted “livability,” its inhabitants often feel isolated and lonely. This is lousy not only for people’s health and well-being, but for democracy, too. In this increasingly mobile age, people still want to know their neighbours and problem-solve together.
Glenn Ewald of the Vancouver Foundation says its researchers kept hearing, “Nothing can replace face to face. It’s a more human connection, somehow deeper and more meaningful.”
If I host, what’s that involve?
The On the Table website is a great place to start. Hosts can sign up with Vancouver Foundation there and find a “toolkit” with conversation prompts and hosting tips. You choose the topic and can gather at your home or office, but a coffee shop is fine too.
Or a bar, which is what Joseph Finkler chose last year, when On the Table first launched. Finkler faced knee surgery, and also happens to be an emergency room doctor at St. Paul’s Hospital. So he invited nurses, former patients, hospital administrators, and medical residents. “We didn’t want to make it into a political thing, but we ended up talking about the opioid crisis. A lot of us are on the forefront of this; we were feeling the heat of it.”
Intense, right? Actually, no. “We just chatted. I think it was a lot of fun, actually.”
How did the first year go for On the Table?
Quite nicely. Across the province, there were 361 hosts (a mix of individuals and organizations) and 4,500 participants. Topics included Designing for Disabilities, Busy People Connecting, Neighbours on Purpose, Survival of Bees, and Women in Philanthropy. Two-thirds were hosted in homes or offices, but parks and restaurants were up there, too. “Everyone we spoke to from last year,” says Ewald, “nobody regretted hosting an On the Table event.”
So, it’s got to be about the big issues of our day, then?
Um, no. One landlord hosted an On the Table event last year with his tenants about... drainage.
How do you keep things from getting awkward?
The risk is low, says Ewald. “Some of the conversations were quite magical, and not just the ones about the imminent legalization of marijuana.
“You know, you discover somebody who shares the same values as you that you kind of knew tangentially. Or you invite someone who’s a stranger, that you know as a field or a record in your [organization’s] database. Then they come around the table, you have a conversation, and you realize that it’s not shared values that you share in this abstract sense, but you relate to one another on this new level.”
On the Table, he adds, is largely “an excuse to bring people together who you know, or love, or respect, or people who are involved in your work somehow, and just have a conversation. It’s so freeing. So just relax. The goal is not to achieve anything specific; the goal is to bring people together.”
The Tyee’s On the Table event. What’s that about?
A hazard of running a website is that you exist in digital bubble. We know we have to creep out from behind our screens every so often and meet in-person with our cherished readers. So, on Sept. 26 after working hours, in our offices, we’ll host some of our Tyee Builders in the Vancouver area who’ve told us they’re interested in connecting more with the Tyee. We’re in a tight space, so we’ll be inviting those folks via email or phone calls.
For us, the On the Table initiative is a great nudge to do something that we want to do more of: connect with people face to face and talk about things that matter to us. It’s simple, but sometimes we forget to take the time.
Our conversation topic: How’s the media doing covering the election? Canada’s having one big conversation this year. We want to know how our readers think the media’s conveying that conversation, and how we at The Tyee can do a better a job. In the days after, we’ll publish a report-back on the evening. We will not be discussing drainage, probably.
Who else should be hosting On the Table gatherings?
“Elected officials, or those who want to be elected officials,” suggests Vancouver Foundation’s Ewald. “Your job as an elected official is to listen, reflect back and advocate, and I can’t think of anybody, any group, for whom On the Table is better suited than those people who are in public service. If your job is to reflect the community that you represent, all of the best politicians I know make a regular habit of listening to their constituents.”
I still want assurance this won’t get awkward.
“It’s not about being a Food Network host for the people who show up,” says Ewald. “It really is about two profoundly simple and yet very powerful things. Talking about people, about what matters to you, what matters to them, and just using this excuse to bring people together to have face to face conversation. With those two things in mind, anybody can do it. Anybody can, and should. Because it’s lovely.”
Check out the On the Table website here.
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