A long table was spread in the center of our main space at the Exchange House in Akron, Ohio. The table was crowded with dishes and desserts. People hustled through the options, piling their plates with textures and spices from around the world. While some of the food was familiar to some, for many, it was an opportunity to try something unknown. Participants found a seat in our pocket park at the table of their preferred language. With 15 dishes of globally diverse food, over 100 people gathered in our pocket park for 11 conversations spoken in nine languages for our On the Table Multilingual Meals earlier this month. With support from Akron Community Foundation, we were able to host Multilingual Meals as a beautiful evening of community connection and action.
On the Table Greater Akron is a “one-of-a-kind initiative where thousands of diverse residents from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds gather to share a meal and discuss meaningful ideas to strengthen our community.” As a public space in North Hill, we strive at the Exchange House to be inclusive of all communities in the neighborhood, regardless of barriers. Thus, we designated a language to each table with 8 to 12 folks who talked about action steps around economic issues and poverty and equity and social inclusion in Nepali, Dari, Arabic, Burmese, Mongolian, Swahili, Spanish, Karen, and English.
Over 60 minutes, each table came up with potential solutions to the issues. Some of the ideas were envisioned to take place at the Exchange House including cultural sensitivity and competency programs, senior citizen resource sharing, counseling sessions for addiction, and driving classes for New Americans.
As I floated between tables and people, I was in awe of the sheer focus and attention. People were motivated to talk about their communities while spending the evening in the presence of many other communities. As the conversations continued, the participants’ energy built to a crescendo. There was loud laughter and furious note taking, deep contemplation, and creative brainstorming. It was universal.
The Exchange House is a welcoming, sometimes unexpected experience valuing North Hill’s cultures through active listening, demonstrating respect, and encouraging growth. In the past 20 months, we have built relationships with leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, students, and workers from various communities in an effort to make cross-cultural connections and to collaborate. The number of partners, guests, and friends of the Exchange House continues to grow as our space becomes more visible and vibrant. We are (literally) building and holding space for our neighbors to come together and work and celebrate collectively. Our goal is to be a regionally recognized sustainable public space that celebrates and showcases North Hill’s cultures through the built environment, programming, and business incubation.
“Multilingual Meals” demonstrated that the dream of bringing folks together who speak nine different languages in order to decide on action steps for the betterment of our community is, in fact, a reality. —Katie Beck