On March 16th 2017, the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) and the NC Council of Churches convened the sixth Come to the Table Conference, Bridging Divides: Cultivating Food and Faith Connections. The Come to the Table Gatherings have been regionally focused in past years, taking place in the eastern, piedmont, and western regions of North Carolina. The 2017 conference was the first statewide gathering of the series. Nearly 500 people registered for and attended the one-day event at the Durham Convention Center, collectively participating in 27 workshops, 4 community conversations over lunch, and networking opportunities facilitated by RAFI staff and volunteers.
The event was successful in bringing together a large and diverse group of people to learn new practical strategies to enhance their work, network, and make connections. Participants engaged in deep and thought-provoking conversations, bridging the divides that are often barriers to relieving hunger and advancing sustainable agriculture.
We collected information on the conference through registration forms, workshop evaluations, and an overall survey on the conference that most participants completed at the end of the day.
Who came to Come to the Table?
- 497 ticket registrations were processed for the event.
- 433 people were checked in to the event, although the actual number of attendees may have been higher as some people may have passed by the registration table.
- About 70 people attended the conference as speakers. This included a group of farmworkers and multiple groups of youth representing their projects.
- 51 people attended the conference with a full or partial scholarship, including 3 groups from colleges (Greensboro College, Guilford, and Warren Wilson).
- About 15 people attended the conference as volunteers, most of whom were from the NC Council of Churches.
During registration attendees were asked to share certain demographic information to give us a better picture of who would be attending the conference. We asked for this information so that we could provide events and experiences that were inclusive and reflected the diversity of lived experiences across the state, and to see who did not attend in order to better tailor programming and outreach in the future. We used best practices from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law to ask registrants about their racial/ethnic and gender identities. In the information presented below, some attendees selected multiple answers regarding their racial/ethnic identity and faith affiliation, thus some figures total a number greater than the amount of registrants.
The gender representation at CTTT 2017 roughly matches the overall representation of the 2015 conference series (when 69% identified as female and 31% as male). Because we asked this question as a write-in rather than multiple choice, we saw more expansive responses, but this includes respondents who did not answer/provide information.
The racial/ethnic identities represented at CTTT 2017 are fairly similar to the overall conference series. The past eastern regional conferences have been the most diverse, and we saw less representation from the eastern part of the state at the 2017 conference. We received feedback from our attendees that the conference was diverse and that people appreciated the diversity/attention to diversity in conversations and workshops throughout the day. We also received feedback that more diversity and attention to diversity would be welcome in the future.
A recommendation for continuing this work and expanding our audience is to begin focused outreach earlier in the planning process, and to use the regional intensives in fall of 2017 to foster connections that will motivate people to attend another statewide conference, should we host one.
Attendees selected their religious affiliation, as follows:
Of the 311 attendees who identified as Christians, 179 listed information regarding denominational affiliation, as follows:
A recommendation to increase representation of other faiths is to invite more interfaith and/or non-Christian speakers and to engage in outreach and relationship-building with different faith groups earlier in the planning process.
This chart represents the geography of Come to the Table attendees based on the ticket purchase location. We had the most attendees from the Triangle and surrounding areas, followed by the Piedmont Triad. The eastern and western parts of the state saw less representation, unsurprisingly, with more attending from western North Carolina. To accommodate low-resource attendees traveling from far away, we offered a 25 cents/mile travel stipend, capped at $200. A recommendation from some of our attendees was to have the next statewide convening be a multi-day event to reduce the amount of travel necessary in a day.
Of the 497 people registered for the conference, 377 were attending Come to the Table for the first time, and 120 had attended one or more previous Come to the Table gatherings.
Most people heard about the conference through work/organizational affiliation, a friend or relative, or a faith-based organization. It is possible that those who shared information about Come to the Table did so with a RAFI email, Facebook post, or sharing other types of media, so responses may not give the clearest picture of the success of our outreach tools. It does, however, speak to the importance of word-of-mouth as a way to share information, and highlights the strong networks among Come to the Table’s constituency.
Finally, we asked in our registration what type of organization, if any, attendees represented at the conference. This question was intended to give us a better picture of our constituency so we could tailor programming to their needs and interests, including the regional intensives. Some data in this is a bit skewed. For instance, many people wrote in “nonprofit” in the “other” section, even though many organizations working in the arenas of the other choices are also nonprofits. “Education” was intended to identify members of an institution of higher education, however many selected it based an educational component to their organization’s mission.
A recommendation for getting a clearer data set is to glean this information at the conference through an interactive networking tool. We collected information this way through our networking wall, but did not gain a very robust data set. This can be improved upon with more deliberate facilitation and staff support to help attendees use the tool and find useful information from it.
At and after the conference, attendees were asked to provide feedback on the overall quality of the event, and to give specific feedback on different components of the day. 204 people returned these end of day surveys, a response rate of 41%. Most of the questions on the survey had open fields rather than multiple choice answer options, so responses were coded and then quantified according to themes that emerged based on the entirety of responses. For both the overall survey and the workshop surveys, the response rates to questions asking about negative aspects of the conference or an individual workshop were lower than the response rates for other questions.
Attendees ranked aspects of the the overall event on a scale from very good to poor. The majority of responses ranked each of the components as very good or good.
When asked about their favorite part of the conference, attendees responded with various answers, which we coded as follows:
Many people mentioned multiple aspects of the day as their favorite. The opening and keynote were mentioned most. Most who did specifically mentioned Jason Brown; many mentioned the opening interfaith prayer and grounding; and many just wrote “Opening”, so these are categorized together. Attendees mentioned that the prayer and grounding set the tone for the day of being attentive to themes of racial justice and equity, as well as honesty and communication. Attendees appreciated Jason Brown’s inspirational personal story and faith journey, and the theme of personal narratives and story-sharing stood out across other aspects of the evaluation as an important element of the Come to the Table Conference.
While many people mentioned a networking aspect of the conference as being their favorite, nobody mentioned specific spaces or instances of facilitated networking. Based on survey responses, it seems that people networked during participatory workshops, during the breaks, and over community conversations, and that story sharing/exchange of personal narratives set the stage for networking in the context of work and partnership-building.
The “Attention to Diversity and Race Equity” category refers to workshops and conversations throughout the day regarding these topics, as well as the diversity of the speakers and participants.
Some notable quotes from the overall evaluations are:
I love the mix of food, faith, and justice. Great job balancing these themes. Thanks for focusing on oppressive systems. Nice range of presentations.
[My favorite part of the conference was the] cultural competency leadership and their willingness to talk after.
[My favorite part of the conference was] diversity! Honesty! Communication! Vulnerability!
[My favorite part of the conference was] feeling bolstered by the large gathering of like-minded people.
Community conversations over lunch was unique and special.
[My favorite part of the conference was] that race and history were integral to every conversation.
Felt like a family reunion.
The lunchtime conversation and the workshop topics were amazing. And the welcome set such a great tone. It was an amazing day, thank you!
Diversity of participants seemed to be intentional in facilitation/format/planning.
[My favorite part of the conference was] Community Conversations over lunch: I enjoyed being challenged with questions about my personal values and hearing from others.
When asked about their least favorite part of the conference, people answered about the following components:
Note that “Workshops” as a category represents comments made about workshops that are pertinent to facilitation, options, absence of organization or handouts, and some general comments that just said “workshops”. Three people mentioned the “Gathering Roots” workshop in particular, but all comments were related to the workshop title and description giving different expectations than the content provided. We aim to improve in this respect by beginning the presenter organization process sooner, and organizing/writing about the workshops in such a way that makes clear the intention of each workshop.
Twenty-seven workshops were offered across 9 themed tracks. Attendees were given evaluations at the end of each session and were asked to rank components of the workshop and give additional feedback on valuable information learned, information missing or not covered, and any other important thoughts. Overall, each workshop had an above-average ranking for each component. It is important to note that the number of people in each workshop varied greatly, with 71 people at the most attended workshop (the first session of “Gathering Roots”) and 7 people at the least attended workshop (“Boots on the Ground”). While we can look at the weighted averages for the ratings we asked participants to give, the low attendance of some workshops makes it difficult to meaningfully compare the responses.
One of the components to rank on the evaluation was practical knowledge gained. We are learning that it can be difficult to compare this question among workshops because some are designed to deliver information differently. For example, many attendees rated the Theology and Food track low for “Practical knowledge gained” (one person even crossed this out and wrote “Spiritual Knowledge Gained,” giving the workshop a “Very Good” rating), because this track was not focused on practical knowledge.
Attendees most frequently named case studies/examples, personal narratives, and audience engagement as what they valued most in the workshops. The most common responses for what information was lacking were action steps and practical tools, though “Meaningful Engagement Across Your Community” and “Community Asset Mapping” both ranked very highly in this regard. Many attendees also appreciated the issue framing that happened in the workshops, and we will strive for a good balance of theory and application for future gatherings.
Some notable quotes are listed below from how people answered the question of what they found to be the most valuable information in the session:
“Sharing Our Experiences Through Visual Storytelling”
The new vocabulary that I learned, like food sovereignty [and] how to use my body for social justice
“Before You Get Started: Community Asset Mapping”
So much divinely timed networking.
“Building Livelihoods: Generative Faith and Food Projects”
Lots of practical information relevant to my group. Great to hear from different contexts!
Loved the honesty and humility about the very real challenges we all face.
“Fairness in Contract Poultry Production: Under Contract Screening & Farmer Panel”
Great farmer speaker—passionate and giving lots of experience and knowledge.
“Recovery and Resilience: Support, Healing, and Faith in the Wake of Disaster”
The work being done to engage across congregations and denominations, as well as stressing the degree to which community members put trust in their churches.
“Growing Innovation: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from RAFI Grantee Farmers”
I lease farmland and the session helped me understand farmers issues.
“Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Chicken”
The bilingual translation was phenomenal in helping us understand concerns that would otherwise be unavailable. I was greatly moved by the speakers.
“Bread from the Earth: Creating Sacred & Community Spaces with Food”
Taking a moment to identify what is sacred in one’s life.
I love how you modeled creating sacred spaces with food. You really invited us in and I appreciate that experiential learning.
Loved hearing about speakers traditions—made me think about how different groups are sacred to different people…all should be honored.
Very hands on, engaging, thought provoking—well rounded and information! Great Job!
“The Body and Worship: Moving to Social Change”
This was a personal workshop with interactive and practical elements. Each part was interesting and beautiful.
Engaging our bodies, hearts, souls, and minds!
I became more familiar with the fact that we’re all in this together.
“Our Stories as Sacred Ground: Land, Food, and Our God”
Learning about asking good questions, having real conversation, and making human connections.
I found myself participating in a deep level of humanity. I greatly appreciated seeing that modeled and then given to participate in.
I learned about another human and I liked that. I got to practice connecting with people.
“Gathering Roots: Looking at Inequities in the Food System”
…you made it personal, real, unforgettable.
THANK YOU! Every piece of information, every reflection was valuable. This presentation should be required for all Americans. At the very least, anyone involved in food, land, and health.
Probably the single most impactful session of any conference that I have ever attended.
Powerful information-this session holds up no matter how many times we hear this information.
Perspective-I needed to hear from people on the front lines
Even though the past is infuriating and depressing, there is reason to be hopeful and joyful.
The slideshow and commentary from the group following what we saw and heard. I was too shy to share but did journal some feelings this brought to the surface but had never faced/admitted to myself. Thank you.
The fact that a room full of different people with different backgrounds can discuss something as heavy as race with kindness and grace is something I haven’t seen in a while! Thank you!
When asked what people would like to see more of at the next conference, the largest number of people mentioned more practical tools and action steps, or offered specific ideas for workshops to offer in the future.
To provide attendees with more practical tools, we can work with future speakers to develop materials and takeaways. Organizing attendees by communities of practice could also foster the dissemination and creation of more tools and action steps, and facilitate more networking.
We also asked about action steps and where attendees saw their work fitting into those steps. This question was meant to help us gain an understanding of what actions would be most useful for RAFI and the Come to the Table community to engage in to move forward together.
While most attendees answered this question with feedback on what RAFI itself can or should be doing post-conference, with few people exploring how they could fit into RAFI-led action steps, the responses were still useful for informing our next steps.
Many of the uncategorized answers refer to changing an aspect about the conference, such as venue logistics or quality of speakers, and some are “N/A” or other non-answers. We can help foster partnerships at the conference by facilitating more networking and providing attendees with opportunities to convene and partner after the conference, either regionally or by communities of practice, through both online and in-person methods.
Some notable quotes from the survey are:
My action step is setting up meeting with people I met in order to move forward in our planning and development.
Getting more food to people who need it. We will keep our garden growing and contact those that can help harvest.
Co-op projects with stopgaps for diversity.
Invest in the food justice work going on in the community.
Using data to highlight values.
So inspired by the conference/wrote a lot about the lives and work of presenters/their quotes stuck with me. I will apply them as we shared at lunch what we wanted to do different! Thank you.
We added a question to the online version of the overall survey that was sent out after the conference, so fewer attendees (27) had the opportunity to answer it. We asked if people had been to a previous Come to the Table Conference, and if so, whether they preferred one statewide conference or smaller regional conferences. The majority of people who answered this question (67%) preferred a statewide conference. It is worth noting that these responses are biased toward being answered by people who could attend the statewide conference; people who preferred or who could only attend a regional conference would not have received this survey since if they didn’t sign up to attend the statewide conference. We will continue to seek feedback on whether a statewide conference or regional convenings are most useful for the Come to the Table community.
We asked attendees what topics they would most like to cover given the opportunity to gather regionally. 113 people responded addressing the following general themes:
Most people indicated that they wanted to delve deeper into issues of race equity and social justice within the food system. This correlated with some of the feedback that we got regarding the “Gathering Roots” sessions. Many of those who attended the sessions said that they wanted more time. It is also not surprising to see this given that people both said that attention to diversity/race equity was a favorite part of the conference and that they would like to see more of this at future conferences.
We also asked people, given the opportunity to gather regionally, how they would most like to spend their time. The desire for more ways to connect with each other and for practical skills comes through clearly in this question as well.
The Come to the Table staff team met after the conference to reflect on the event and the planning process. Some recommendations that emerged include:
- Utilize both a Request For Proposals process and individual invitations to cast a wider net in presenter recruitment. This will expand and diversify the pool of people who might share knowledge at the conference and potentially enlarge our audience.
- Plan for more staff time spent coordinating with presenters to reduce confusion or mismatch over the title and description of a workshop and the actual content, and to support presenters in creating workshops that include practical tools, share information creatively, and engage with the participants.
- Organize the conference in such a way that workshops focused heavily on theory or issue-framing are distinguished from workshops that focus on practical tools, knowledge, and/or action steps. The 2015 conference series touched upon this with its “Head, Hands and the Heart” theme, but participants did not engage with this in a very significant way. If the conference extends to multiple days, the more theoretical, background knowledge workshops could take place in the earlier part of the event, followed by more skill-building and practical knowledge.
- Select a venue with more flexible, affordable options for food.