The Columbus Foundation sparks civic engagement with one-day citywide event.

Did you notice coworkers straggling into the office late yesterday, telltale smears of cream cheese and doughnut innards staining their clothes? Or perhaps there was a rash of unexplained midday absences? Those employees actually had a legitimate civic excuse for playing hooky (at least some of them did) in the form of The Big Table, a citywide Columbus Foundation event meant to promote civic discourse through hundreds of simultaneous, hour-long roundtable discussions.

On August 30, organizations throughout Central Ohio invited groups of eight to 12 people from varied backgrounds and professions to gather and talk about how to make Columbus a better place. Each host organization chose its own topic of discussion and facilitated a loose, free-flowing conversation.

(The Big Table discussion group at Ologie headquarters. From left to right: Tamara Brown, Chris Gaitten, Josh Harraman, Ben Marrison, Bruce Harkey, Irene Alvarez, Leah McDougald, Jami Goldstein, Walker Evans. Photo by Chelsea Castle)

The Big Table was based on a civic engagement project called On the Table, which debuted in Chicago three years ago, says Kelley Griesmer, director of special projects with the Columbus Foundation. After foundation members were invited by the Chicago Community Trust to attend the most recent On the Table series, they were inspired to create a similar event in Columbus. During a tense, politicized summer which had many people feeling hopeless and helpless, the Columbus Foundation felt it needed to organize the first such event sooner rather than later, Griesmer says.

"The first and foremost goal of The Big Table is for people to get together and realize that they can have human interactions," Griesmer continues. "During the conversations we're hoping that they put down their phone-they not only talk, but listen and learn from each other."

With a short planning timeline, the foundation set its sights on getting about 125 organizations to host roundtable discussions. Instead, 472 hosts registered, engaging an estimated 5,000 participants throughout the Columbus metro area to discuss issues that ranged from public transportation to mentoring. "People in Columbus are what we thought," Griesmer says. "They are open and receptive and enthusiastic, and we've seen people in every corner of the community want to do this."

At an event at Ologie headquarters cohosted by Fahlgren Mortine, the conversation revolved around a topic of expertise for the two agencies-Columbus as a brand. Over bagels, fruit, pastries and countless mugs of coffee (with no subversive cellphone usage), Ologie's managing partner Bill Faust moderated discussion among a group of nine invited guests, including me, about the oft-debated and ambivalent subject of shaping Columbus' nationwide reputation. Other guests on the panel included Irene Alvarez (Columbus 2020), Tamara Brown (State of Ohio), Walker Evans (Columbus Underground), Jami Goldstein (GCAC), Bruce Harkey (Franklin Park Conservatory), Josh Harraman (Ohio State University), Ben Marrison (Ohio auditor's office) and Leah McDougald (McDougald Research).

Participants grappled with topics like how to brand the city without losing its burgeoning appeal as a hidden gem of the Midwest and how to increase knowledge among locals about all the city has to offer, turning them into de facto ambassadors for visitors. There also was discussion about the outsized role of Ohio State and how to promote its many resources without focusing solely on sports or allowing its image to overshadow that of the city itself. Another factor identified during the discussion was making sure that organizations like Columbus 2020, Experience Columbus and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce are working together toward the same vision, rather than in silos, while also making the role of each clear to residents.

During the second half of the hour, the conversation turned toward more substantive topics underlying the brand. If we are just looking to the future and idealistic notions of what we'd like to become, are we at risk for discarding neighborhoods and people who have been left behind in the past? For example, how can maligned areas like the Near East Side and Franklinton capitalize on momentum and newfound support without succumbing to gentrification and pushing longtime residents outside the urban core?

There were few concrete solutions-though an improved educational system was put forth as a vital area of focus going forward-or any kind of consensus on exactly how a historically brand-less city like Columbus should continue building on a wave of national attention, positive economic development and a growing sense of itself as a smart, open and creative place. For its part, the Columbus Foundation plans to collect post-discussion surveys as a form of community research to learn more about what residents think is important and how the city needs to improve. Griesler says they are hoping the discussions lit "the spark of civic engagement in the community in one day."

It appears to be a conversation Columbus is more than ready to have.