A Community Table Draws Record Interest During Coronavirus
An online format allowed the annual conversation to cover more ground than ever before
The year 2020 was supposed to be the big one for A Community Table. After highly successful events in 2018 and 2019, staff at the University of Denver’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) was ready to take their programming to a place it had never been before.
And they did. Just not in the way they expected.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of people around the world to isolate and shelter in their homes, A Community Table knew it had to adapt. Gathering friends and strangers from the community for face-to-face dialogue wasn’t exactly low-risk behavior.
But Katie Kleinhesselink, program manager for DU Grand Challenges, which hosts the event, and her team realized discussing and solving community issues was more important than ever. Rather than postpone or cancel the weeklong event, CCESL expanded it to a 10-week initiative and moved everything online.
“Our rationale was that we could offer space where folks could connect for meaningful conversation while helping combat the effects of isolation,” Kleinhesselink says. “What that meant, though, was that we had just over a week, instead of months, to get everything fully developed and online.”
The decision paid off. By the end of spring quarter, A Community Table had 172 registered conversations — a 60% increase from the year before — across 14 states. Students, faculty, DU staff, community leaders and everyday people gathered to discuss everything from sustainability in the fashion industry to racial justice and white supremacy.
“Each conversation revealed incredible observations, ideas and insights,” says CCESL director Anne DePrince, who is also a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology. She hosted three tables over the course of the quarter. “Of course, the conversations were constrained by the things that make online communication different than in-person conversation — a muted microphone here, an awkward pause there. That said, because people have been operating remotely for some time now, it was easy to get past those constraints to meaningful conversation. And the conversations seemed impactful.”
For years now, A Community Table, which is modeled after the Chicago Community Trust Foundation’s successful “On the Table” initiative, has produced ideas that have led to concrete change.
Four CCESL-sponsored Collective Impact Cohorts have been hard at work, developing ideas from previous years into meaningful pursuits. For example, one cohort teamed up with the Colorado Front Range Safe Parking Initiative to help people experiencing homelessness who need to sleep in their cars. Grants from DU IMPACT 2025 and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations have helped make it possible.
Previous events focused on narrow topics like increasing economic opportunity and meeting basic needs. The theme for this year’s A Community Table was more open ended: “deliberation and action for the public good.”
To foster more engaging conversation across a wider range of subjects, CCESL partnered with the DU DialogUes program, a group that teaches faculty, students and staff how to embrace difficult conversations and talk about their differences.
DU DialogUes director Thomas Walker and program manager Neda Kikhia (BA ’16, MA ’20) worked with Kleinhesselink to refine the facilitator’s guide and focused the discussion prompts on personal experience and building relationships.
“Dialogue has such a potential to bring about community change,” says Kikhia, who also participated in a couple of tables. “It was really powerful and I think those questions were broad enough to encompass any topic. I felt more connected to the people at my table.”
The newly framed questions, Kleinhesselink says, “were a real game changer. Conversations went much deeper than in past years and were really solution-focused.”
The issues discussed at A Community Table were more varied than in prior years. Students from the DU Veterans Legacy Program gathered veterans from five different conflicts to discuss their experiences and address issues facing their communities.
Meanwhile, a table hosted by the DU Center for Sustainability drew more than 40 participants, exploring partnerships between the University and the community. In small breakout rooms, the diverse groups identified specific actions they could take together to create a just and sustainable future.
“I’m struck by the magic that’s inherent in authentic collaboration,” Kleinhesselink says. “It’s so revitalizing to be in communion with a group of folks who’ve really shown up and want to dig deep. We can accomplish so much more together than we ever will working in silos.”