Plan for lots of company

The Longest Table breaks bread and barriers in Dayton

Photo: Longest Table Dayton at Lincoln Hill Gardens on Earth Day for the April meal this past year

By Erin Callahan

“Imagine a table spanning the length of a bridge.”

That’s what Bryan Stewart asked of his audience at the 2016 UpDayton Summit. And now, this vision has become a reality right here in Dayton, on the Third Street Bridge.

About 300 people gathered at this table Oct. 15, 2016 to share a free meal, and hundreds more have gathered around 10 more tables throughout neighborhoods in Dayton since. This initiative, known as The Longest Table, was the winner of the 2016 UpDayton Summit and is meant to connect neighborhoods as they break bread and barriers together.

UpDayton, an organization that “inspires and empowers young professionals to create the Dayton, Ohio they want—a thriving place to live, work, play, and learn,” hosts the summit as a launch pad for community projects. Audience members vote for their favorites, and the winners receive $1,000 and volunteer support to get started. Stewart presented his idea “shark tank, Ted-Talk” style, and he knew he had to make a big impact with minimal resources. “I was told I got less than three minutes, I got one slide or image to have up behind me, and go,” he says.

As a Dayton native and city of Dayton employee, Stewart “caught the bug” of UpDayton, often encouraging other young people to join. After studying politics at Miami University, he returned to Dayton to work as a legislative aide and noticed nearly all of his friends had left the area.

“I basically had to start from zero and make a new group of core friends, and I had to do my homework on where you’d even start,” he says. “I heard about UpDayton, went to the summit in 2015, and found it really powerful. I love UpDayton because it’s a cool vehicle to enact change.”

Meanwhile, as Stewart visited different neighborhoods with the commissioners he worked for as a legislative aide, he started to notice an opportunity to instigate change.

“It was just such a stark contrast between neighborhoods that were able to put on all sorts of events, fundraise, and really connect, in comparison to some of the ones that were really struggling,” he says. “I had that notion in the back of my head and then one day one of my colleagues sent a Twitter message out with an article from The Atlantic about this thing called The Longest Table, which was an effort from the mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.

“So with all that background, and with the right encouragement, I pitched it at the summit,” he continues. “I wanted to be able to convey and have people envision why it was worth spending their vote on, why it was worth spending $1,000 on, why it was worth spending our time on. So I said, ‘How powerful would it be to get people together from all over Dayton—from neighborhoods who are really crushing it to those who are sort of struggling.’ People really supported the idea and a year later we’re still going at it on a monthly basis.”

Since October, UpDayton has hosted Longest Tables at the University of Dayton, in various restaurants and neighborhoods, and they’re planning one for Sinclair. By design, the program is meant to connect individuals who may otherwise never cross paths—and Stewart ensures everyone who attends gets that opportunity.

“We split you up to different tables,” he explains. “So if you come in a group of three, we’re putting you at tables one, two, and three. We’ve had some really interesting byproducts. We’ve had entire groups of strangers sit down, break bread, leave, and meet back up later that night to go see a movie together. This is old, young, black, white, the whole nine yards. We’ve had a person tell me their mom attended and actually got into a relationship, so we kind of played matchmaker in a way. We’ve had really serendipitous things happen where we’ll have a neighborhood leader sitting next to an everyday citizen, they have a great conversation with the guy in the hat or the lady in the T-shirt, and it ends up being the chief of police or the city manager. You never really know who will be across from you.”

Stewart starts off every Longest Table by saying the meal will be what everyone puts into it—whether that is open, honest, exciting conversation, or more guarded conversation. To help prompt discussion, there are three sets of questions on the placemats: “get to know you” questions, questions about where you’re from, and questions about where you want to see Dayton go and how you want to help bring it there.

The key was to get the greater community rallied behind the cause, so Stewart and the project volunteers formed three committees—marketing and outreach, dialogue, and logistics—and they began to spread the word.

“The main thing we did was we met people where they were,” Stewart says. “We made it a goal to email every neighborhood president, to go out to churches, synagogues, and mosques, and basically reach out to everyone who would listen and invite them. Leading up to that first big meal, it was hard for people to visualize what the heck we were talking about. But now that we’ve done it, and we’ve not only done it once, we’ve done it more than 10 times, people are starting to see the videos, and the pictures, and hear testimonials from their friends.”

Stewart mentioned the support of several groups that have contributed to the success of The Longest Table so far: UpDayton, the volunteers and their extensive networks, the legislative aide from Tallahassee who shared his experience and advice from their Longest Table project, the House of Bread and Dayton cooks for donating food, and the city and citizens of Dayton.

“It’s exciting because the community responds to it positively, which emboldens us to go even further and try new things,” he says. “Going forward, I would like to see The Longest Table start connecting leaders around Dayton. That’s not the easiest thing to do because you don’t build an immediate strong bond with someone after one conversation, but we’re seeing a lot of neighborhood leaders repeatedly come to these meals. It gives them a widened perspective of what’s going on in Dayton and the concerns of citizens, so what I think the future of Longest Table is continuing to hold community conversations. They might become less often, they might do it in annual way with special circumstances, but it will never lose its cool factor of, ‘Wow, 500 people are on a bridge eating together, that’s pretty far out.’”

For more information, please visit TheLongestTableDayton.com.

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Erin Callahan
Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com

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