In today's noisy media environment and fractious political climate, genuine conversation and careful listening has become elusive, but it has never been more essential.

That's why the Philadelphia Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation piloted On the Table Philly on May 23. We believe informed and engaged communities — communities with the ability to listen to each other and learn together — are essential to a healthy democracy.

The initiative showed that it is indeed still possible for people to talk civilly, openly, and thoughtfully about a wide range of important topics such as their neighborhoods, education, race relations, mental health, immigration, the opioid epidemic, food insecurity, prisoner re-entry, and support for the arts.

Neighbors, colleagues, and strangers valued the ability to speak respectfully and rationally together about how the subjects that receive great — or no — attention on a national basis play out in their day-to-day lives.

The day featured more than 300 conversations over meals organized by 162 hosts in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. The talks occurred in schools, libraries, YMCAs, community centers, homes, universities, offices, and at the State Correctional Institution in Chester.

We look forward to sharing feedback from these community conversations when survey results from all participants are compiled. In the meantime, social media shares from the day can be found via #LetsTalkPhilly.

What's already clear is:

  • People of all backgrounds in all parts of the region want to engage each other face-to-face, beyond the noise, to talk about improving their communities.
  • Hosts and participants want to keep the conversations — and the momentum — going.
  • There are opportunities to expand personal and institutional networks and partnerships in order to do good.

Some specific efforts have already been catalyzed. For example, one hospital has decided to collaborate with multiple branches of the Free Library to host monthly health-awareness workshops.

Talking with people who see a different side of an issue, or see it through a different lens, makes our understanding clearer and our actions better.

Stepping outside of our own comfortable echo chambers gives us the opportunity to generate resident-driven solutions to community needs in richer, more unpredictable, more creative ways. We often underestimate the power of the voices of individuals when they join with those of their neighbors.

At the end of the day, we live in the community we make. We often look to government for leadership, when leadership resides next door.

Let's keep talking Philly!

Pedro Ramos is president and CEO of The Philadelphia Foundation.
Patrick Morgan is the Philadelphia program director of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.