We don’t spend enough time with people outside our own little silos.
I’m guilty, too.
Unless it’s for work, rarely do I simply sit and get to know people for no other reason than to get to know them. On Thursday, though, I was reminded of just how important it is to do that, thanks to a three-year-old initiative sponsored by the Philadelphia Foundation called On the Table.
The 101-year-old philanthropic foundation arranged for about 6,000 people to gather in small groups around the region with no agenda other than to make new connections and foster civic engagement. And to do it over a meal.
I was asked to host a table, so I invited people from different backgrounds to join me for lunch on Thursday at P.J. Clarke’s inside the historic Curtis Center. We had a small, but grand, private room and a preselected menu.
Gilberto Gonzalez, 55, an award-winning artist and activist from the Spring Garden area, was the first to arrive. We follow each other on social media but had never met in person. Because he has a son at Benjamin Franklin High School, which closed Oct. 1 because of asbestos contamination, we had plenty to discuss. As we chatted, Lisa Haver, a retired Philadelphia teacher-turned-education activist, arrived. She and Gonzalez shook hands and started chatting immediately.
Next up was Zachary Marcus Cesare Harris, president and chief executive of Ikavina Wine and Spirits, who arrived bearing a couple bottles of his new wines, and then the Rev. Antonio Anderson of Mount Tabor Baptist Church. Angelita Byrd, a member of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s advisory council, showed up next, followed by Charlie Hills, a write-in candidate for City Council at-large. (Several other guests, including two readers I had invited, were no-shows). Phoebe Coles, a consultant for the Foundation, also stopped by.
It helped that we dined family style. Passing platters of food around gets you talking to people you otherwise might not have. Conversation flowed as easily as the blush wine that Harris selected as we jumped from subject to subject — the asbestos situation at Ben Franklin, poverty and race, and our speculations about the verdict in the Michael White trial. (We later learned he was acquitted of killing real estate developer Sean Schellenger near Rittenhouse Square last year.) There were slightly uncomfortable moments, such as when we debated a controversial plan to open a supervised-injection site in Kensington.
“Narcan is supposed to be a great thing. Drug dealers love it," Gonzalez said of the powerful medication that can reverse an overdose. "You know why? It increases their business.”
That’s when Haver interjected, “Wait, you’re not saying that we shouldn’t save people with Narcan?"
“No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just telling you that there’s nothing to protect the community from the increased violence [from drug dealing],” Gonzalez pointed out. “They’re only thinking of saving the lives of these people with addictions."
“These drug dealers are coming from Chester, they’re coming from New York," he added. "They make life horrible for my family in Kensington.”
Our two hours together went by very quickly.
Too quickly, really.
As dessert was served, I realized that what had started as another item on my daily to-do list had evolved into so much more.
I felt calmer. And more connected to some folks who had just been names in my social media feed.
I made a mental note to host my own On the Table-type talk sometime in the future.
It should not take a special initiative such as what the Philadelphia Foundation sponsored to get us to talk to each other. We can do better. We just need to make the effort.