By Travis Pereira
The dinner tables of Torontonians across the city will be serving food for thought tonight as part of 1000 Dinners TO.
Dinners hosted across the city everywhere from community centres to universities to restaurants to homes will feature the exchange of ideas on how to effectively improve Toronto.
1000 Dinners TO is a non-partisan group of Torontonians looking to engage the city in healthy political conversations about the future.
Ambassadors are to use their networks of community organizations to spread the word and encourage people to sign up as dinner hosts.
“My understanding is we’re going to hit about 500 dinners which is a massive response in a very short period of time,” said Anne Brayley, Toronto Foundation Vice-President of Philanthropic Services. “It’s giving us a great indication that people think this is a pretty neat idea.”
The conversations even continue online, as participants are encouraged to tweet their thoughts about the issues they’re discussing through the #1000DinnersTO Twitter hashtag.
“We want people to not only discuss what’s taking place at their dinners but engage in other dinners and see what other people are taking about,” said 1000 Dinners TO Project Lead Jamie Ellerton.
Each dinner will require one person to take notes of the discussion and submit the feedback to be compiled and analyzed.
Some of the issues raised will be featured in an Oct. 16 mayoral debate being hosted by CBC in partnership with the Toronto Foundation.
The important message behind the event is change can happen at a community level, said Brayley.
“We all have to believe that we can influence change and we all have the ability to make change in our own community at some level,” she said.
Sparking the conversation
Event organizers have put together a question “tool kit” to spark conversation at tonight’s dinner. Ellerton said the purpose is to serve as an ice-breaker to get the conversation going.
“There are big questions and sometimes the problem with big questions is you end up with ‘motherhood’ statements that don’t get into the meat of the matter,” said Ryerson University Associate Professor Nancy Walton.
Walton will be hosting a dinner tonight and said the conversation at her dinner will start with ideas that address issues, such as local poverty, and how to solve them.
She said there will be about 12 people at her appetizer-style dinner from both from her neighbourhood of Little Italy and Scarborough.
“I focused first on people I know from various contexts in my neighbourhood to talk about some of the issues around here,” she said. “I thought it would interesting to get the two perspectives to see if we have shared concerns, and have different opinions on things.”
Focusing on the ‘what’ instead of ‘who’
Ellerton said it’s no coincidence the date of the event coincides with the release of this year’s Toronto’s Vital Signs Report.
“It [the report] provides the city with a year-by-year snapshot of stuff we should be proud off and issues we need to still work on,” he said.
Ellerton said when conversations about organizing the event started, looking at the work the Toronto Foundation does made the Vital Signs Report an obvious starting point.
“It’s important to us because it’s actually more than political discourse,” said Brayley. “It’s really intended to be a broader opportunity for broad civic engagement about the city.”
Walton said the conversation of how to improve the city doesn’t need to be limited to the context of a mayoral election.
“It’s just coincidental that at this time we do have a civic election going on, but it is a perfect opportunity for these types of broad based discussions.”
— Anne Brayley, Toronto Foundation Vice-President of Philanthropic Services
Toronto is in the midst of one of the most contentious mayoral debates in recent history. With the focus on the three main candidates and the antics accompanying them, it may be easy for people to have polarized views on major issues and concerns facing the city.
Brayley said the timing of the release of the annual Vital Report and tonight’s event aren’t politically motivated.
“It’s just coincidental that at this time we do have a civic election going on, but it is a perfect opportunity for these types of broad based discussions,” she said.
Ellerton said it’s important the ideas and voices from the city’s various communities are properly represented in political conversations.
He said there’s been a focus on the “who” and not so much the “what”.
“A lot of the conversation has been focused on the ‘who’,” said Ellerton. “Who should be mayor and who’s leading the polls? When we had the idea to do 1000 Dinners TO we wanted to install the ‘what’ into the conversation.”
1000 Dinners TO is designed to encourage engagement on a municipal level, but could it work on a provincial level?
Ellerton said the organization has discounted the idea, but isn’t looking past today’s event just yet.
“When the dust is settled and we’ve looked at the ideas and collected all the feedback, and see what people thought about the initiative we’ll look at plans for the future for sure,” he said.