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CHAMPAIGN — Like hundreds of other cities around the country, Champaign will soon host a cookout with a unique concept.

On Aug. 12, the city will seat 300 diners at dozens of tables laid end-to-end on Main Street in the heart of downtown so participants can meet new people, strike up conversations and eat for free.

The Service Together Achieves Results Longest Table initiative is the first time the city will gather residents, elected officials and community stakeholders in an attempt to have a “civil conversation about their community” while sharing a free meal catered by Champaign-based Dish Passionate Cuisine.

John Ruffin, Neighborhood Coordinator at the City of Champaign, said the city got the idea after attending a workshop at the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference last year.

“Our staff were enthralled by the idea of having a table where we can break bread together and have some focused conversation over a meal,” Ruffin said. “It’s been done successfully in places like Tallahassee, Florida; Oak Park, Illinois; and Dayton, Ohio. We wanted to experiment like they did with this engagement tool.”

Ruffin said it’s a way for people in Champaign to discuss ongoing issues around public safety and neighborhood wellness. Conversation facilitators — volunteers stationed at the tables to guide discussion — will be given six to eight questions to pose to the attendees.

“It’s a great opportunity to put some of those issues in front of community stakeholders and have a discussion not only about the issues but about how we make some solutions happen,” Ruffin said. “This conversation is meant to incentivize further conversation.”

Ruffin also hopes the event will encourage neighborhoods within the city to host their own, “shorter” Longest Table, “to have discussion about salient issues in their own communities.”

So far, about 150 people have signed up for spots at the 50 6-foot-long tables. Anyone wishing to participate is asked to RSVP online by Aug. 8, and Ruffin said that the city is still looking for volunteers. It’s the first time the city is doing something like this, so they will take all the help they can get, he said.

“We’re asking folks to register at our website if they’re interested in participating,” Ruffin said. “We’re still anxious to get folks to sit around the table and participate in the conversation. We’re well underway to have facilitators lined up, but what we hope at this point is that folks register with us.”

News-Gazette