#OntheTable 2016: Great for Chicago, but not my waistline!

| Shelley Stern Grach

Doesn’t it just figure? As soon as the weather starts to break in Chicago, and I sign up for  Weight Watchers to get rid of the “winter blahs 10”, along comes Chicago Community Trust’s “On the Table 2016” –an annual Spring forum designed to elevate conversation, foster new relationships and unite the place we call “home”….all the while eating our way through this fabulous day. This year, I was honored to attend (and help host) three different On the Table events. I’d like to share with you my journey, and the menus along the way. Bon Appetit!

All kidding aside, what is really important about On the Table 2016 is the “movement” that has been started and the nearly 55,000 conversations throughout Chicagoland on May 10th. There were over 3600 “tables” hosted in the City and the suburbs, and nearly 7 million digital impressions posted. By mid-morning #Onthetable2016 was trending! What we learn when we come together as a community is what’s important—helping each voice to be heard and discussing/finding solutions to help positively impact our neighborhoods and lives.


My first stop was the Harold Washington Library, for a discussion led by Mark Andersen of the Chicago Public Library. This was a working lunch with ~30 people at 3 tables. The menu included assorted sandwiches (I tried to remove the bread—doesn’t work so well with hummus attached), chips and cookies (arghh!!!). Weight watchers points for lunch-14. However, the conversation was all protein, not carbs. We were focusing on Workforce Development in our neighborhoods, and I met some great new people—from John Marshall Law School, from the US Department of State, from the Philippines, Malaysia and New York. There was even a conference in town attending several On the Table events to learn best practices from Chicagoans.

We discussed the universal need to improve basic digital literacy skills, notably on the SW side of Chicago. We brainstormed on ways to create a more unified community of funders—specifically, how to get funding aligned, coordinated and “funneled” to increase impact and outcomes in our neighborhoods. We agreed that working with nonprofits on describing outcomes is a challenge all around, and collecting good data, tracking data and reporting data needs a lot of improvement. We also discussed how we all need to do a better job helping nonprofits build staff capacity, especially in the area of evaluation tools, knowing what data to collect and how to analyze data sets. We speculated that a stronger collective impact model—referencing Thrive Chicago—might work for Workforce as well as for Education.

WP_20160510_14_57_06_RichMy next stop was LISC Chicago, where I am a proud member of the Board. This was a coffee break table, with the amazing chocolate chip Corner Bakery cookies, plus fresh fruit. Weight Watchers points—6—and it’s only 3 pm. Ok, so I had half a chocolate chip cookie and a full cup of coffee to offset the sugar high. At LISC we had a fully facilitated program and we had a chance to meet the new Executive Director Meghan Harte, who recently moved to LISC from City Hall. There were about 20 people around a large table, including representatives from several LISC-supported communities like Englewood, North Lawndale, etc. Our focus at LISC was “What steps can we take to support the creation of a more unified community?”

Our facilitator broke us up into smaller groups, where we discussed collaboration, economic development and skills requirements. It was amazing how different groups of people—many who were meeting for the first time that day—identified similar issues across our neighborhoods to address. Our vision included more equitable resources, more shared conversations, residents who are actively engaged in their neighborhoods and formalized community planning.


CPL2016Logo_gs_printThe next and final program was at the wonderful Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch at 2100 S. Wentworth Avenue. This Branch is a must-see! This was jointly hosted by Microsoft and the Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon and Chicago Public Library Foundation CEO Rhona Frazin. A huge thank you to Si Chen, Branch Manager of Chinatown. Si graciously opened her home to us that evening, provided tours and the background on the design, architecture and art in the Branch, which is visited by nearly 1500 people each day.

Catering was provided by the fabulous Hing Kee Restaurant. We had a huge sushi boat with at least six different kinds of sushi, vegetable fried rice, Chinese Chicken wings, fried tofu, dumplings, won tons, two kinds of noodles and sesame dessert. Weight Watchers points—let’s just say that I stopped counting!

Our goal during the evening was to introduce a wide array of people to the new CPL Branch and to discuss how technology can help “extend the walls” of the Libraries into the communities they serve. Clearly, digital access and skills continued to be a hot discussion topic. The Library has recently expanded its Cybernavigator program to all 80 locations, so we discussed how critical these resources are and how important to “right size” the resources based on the needs of the individual community. I especially enjoyed the discussion about the Library being a “safe place” (literally and figuratively) to learn, to get information, to experiment, and to grow. It’s also an important way to rebrand a neighborhood (like Chinatown) and the Library “represents the history of the neighborhood”.

At the Microsoft Technology Center, our Civic Tech Fellow Kevin Wei had the pleasure of hosting The Family Institute at Northwestern University. The conversation was around “identity” and how it relates to the ways we all see or experience ourselves and our communities, as “different” — sexuality, ability/disability status, race, and religion. How do we move ourselves and each other to inclusion, not only with each other, but with aspects of our own selves and communities we belong to? An extremely important and critically relevant discussion in today’s society.

By 9 pm, the sun had set, the conversation was winding down, the sushi was consumed and we were all thrilled with our personal and professional time spent On the Table 2016. Congratulations and a big thank you to the Chicago Community Trust for your inspiration and leadership,  and to my colleagues at Chicago Public Library and at LISC Chicago for hosting these important conversations. And thank you to each of you who participated at conversations throughout our City—your time, your perspective, your caring all help make Chicago stronger and better.

See you at the next Weight Watchers meeting!

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Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.