Community conversations are ‘On the Table’ for first time in Philadelphia

 Shalimar Thomas, the executive director of The North Broad Renaissance, is hosting an

Shalimar Thomas, the executive director of The North Broad Renaissance, is hosting an "On The Table" discussion with students at area middle and high schools. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Community organizations across Philadelphia will be getting together over a meal Tuesday to talk about a number of issues in the community. The On the Table initiative is making its debut in Philadelphia.

First launched in Chicago, On the Table allows community organizations to spur dialogue while sharing a meal. Introduced in Philadelphia through a partnership of the Knight and Philadelphia foundations, the initiative has drawn positive responses from a number of civic organizations

“I’m from Broad and Erie, so this is my community that I’m helping to improve,” said Shalimar Thomas,  executive director of the North Broad Renaissance. Based at the Philadelphia School District headquarters building — but not associated with the district — North Broad Renaissance is dedicated to revitalizing the area around Broad Street.

“I grew up at Broad and Erie at the height of crack, so I know,” Thomas said. “But, now, to be on the other side of that and to say you have an impact on improving your community, the very same community that you live in, it’s a privilege.”

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The organization is taking a different approach to On the Table, focusing on the kids from neighboring middle schools and high schools. Thomas decided to invite them into the discussion to get an idea of what the next generation of Philly is experiencing.

“We realize that there’s a missing voice in our efforts, and that’s the students,” she said. “They are just as much of a stakeholder in this community as the mayor; as the developers; as the business owners. They are just as vital and just as important and just as valuable — but their voice is missing.”

Thomas, who has been with the organization since its creation in 2015, said that the open dialogue can be helpful to adults as well as the kids.

But what would she ask to spur a conversation with them?

“That is such a loaded question because it’s so much that our kids need,” she said. “I hope they talk about their future and what it really means to them. You know what I mean. What do you need us to do?

“Seriously, what do you need from us as your elders, as your leaders,” she added. “Even though you may not be my child, we are still responsible for taking care of these kids.”

Along with Philadelphia and Chicago, other cities that have hosted On the Table events include Charlotte, Miami, San Jose, and Detroit.

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