The title Together at the Table is lifted from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.Our Together at the Table program was, at its core, a drop-in community gathering meant to foster feelings of empathy and belonging among all the many people who live in Skokie and who use the library. From noon until 8 p.m. on that Monday, Together at the Table took place in our larger multi-purpose programming space which is adjoined with a kitchen. We pushed together four of our tables, end to end, to create a long banquet-style table with chairs. Spread across the tabletops were tent talkers to get conversations started; we chose 6 questions from "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love." We purchased many dozens of muffins (all kosher) and set out hot coffee, hot water and tea, and ice water as well. And so the stage was set.
|A snapshot from Together at the Table,|
by adult program librarian Mimosa Shah.
As I pitched this program to my fellow programming team members and staff, I kept coming back to the central idea that participants would be able to break bread with one another and get to know fellow community members. I had the support of supervisors throughout the library that these conversations be open to staff at every level as well--and we did have about two dozen staff drop in to meet and talk with patrons throughout the day. Breaking bread is such a strong human interaction that seems to span all cultures; friendships and family are made over a shared meal. We wanted to facilitate that feeling of goodwill and community in our library--in particular at a moment, and at the beginning of the week of the inauguration, when many in our community were feeling unsettled, isolated, and worried.
Was the day successful? To be honest, I would have counted Together at the Table a success if even a single conversation took place in that space. I wanted to foster a space for meaningful interaction--something deeper than a rote "How are you?" / "Fine, and you?" back and forth or a conversation about the weather. And with that modest goal, I was blown away by the interactions that took place and the relationships that were formed.
Some snippets of the interactions, almost all between people who came to the shared table as strangers:
- "We discovered that we have friends in common!" A patron who participated without knowing anyone struck up a conversation with someone seated near them, and they discovered that they share mutual friends. They remarked about feeling like the community is a close-knit, interconnected one.
- A girl scout leader in the program with her troop connected with our deputy director, who leads a troop in a neighboring town. The two groups have made plans to get together.
- An older elementary boy, who spends many of his out-of-school hours at the library, expressed delight and excitement at not only learning the library director is, in his words, "Korean like me!" but in being able to have a conversation with him as well.
- Two young men who entered the program separately and were seated next to one another became friends in the course of their conversation, trading numbers before leaving so they could meet up again.
- One woman responded to the prompt about something she's dreamed of doing with her desire to open a female-friendly auto repair garage. After talking about this dream with her seatmates, one identified himself as a person in real estate and he shared with the woman information on how to find a location for her business. They exchanged numbers and made plans to continue their conversation.
- A 21-year-old man shared that the day of the program marked his twentieth day since coming to the U.S. from Afghanistan. In the course of his conversations with his tablemates and one of the teen volunteers, he became curious about the library's volunteer opportunities as a way to meet people and improve his English. He ended up talking with our volunteer coordinator, who had come into the room.
These are just a handful of the interactions that played out across the shared table. Our community embraced the ethos of Together at the Table wholeheartedly. I was struck by how open-hearted and honest the conversations I had, and the conversations I heard about, were. By how willing our community is to forge bonds with one another.
We had several participants ask if we plan to do this sort of program again, and many of us on staff and in our administration want to. If a root of civic engagement is feeling invested in one's community, Together at the Table certainly showed we have strong foundation in Skokie for this work.