Topics put ‘On the Table’ alike across Southwest Florida

(Caloosa Belle/Dale Conyers) In LaBelle the “On the Table” community roundtable discussion was held at the Bridge Street Coffee and Tea. Community members who attended the discussion are pictured above from left to right, Emily Hunter, Communications & Legislative Coordinator with the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners, Ellen Ferguson, Carolyn Rogers, Vice President, Development & Communications with Southwest Florida Community Foundation and Katie Leone, Impact & Sustainability Manager with Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

CLEWISTON — The “On the Table” community roundtable discussions as conducted in many other places came to Southwest Florida this autumn, sponsored by the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and the FutureMakers Coalition and attended by a wide spectrum of community partners on Thursday, Oct. 17.

In Hendry County, one gathering was at the Clewiston Adult School. The Hendry County School District’s director of adult and workforce education, Michael Swindle, hosted a variety of people and saw enthusiastic participation from many different pillars of rural society in the region.

“We had several, actually, in Hendry County this year, and they were phenomenal. We got some great conversation from our community stakeholders, great suggestions, great direction,” said Mr. Swindle, and all of the participants requested to continue the conversations.

He said it was the first time these discussions have taken place as part of the organized, and spreading, On the Table initiative. It is an annual forum that, according to Wikipedia, was designed by The Chicago Community Trust “to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action” across local regions. The first took place in 2014 in Illinois, and the movement since has become entrenched in dozens of communities nationwide.

Last autumn across Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast both, the first On the Table discussions took place in many cities. There they were sponsored by the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County community foundations, and the project was repeated in 2019, meant to become an annual exercise.

Mr. Swindle said he intentionally sought out people from many fields and occupations to take part.

“We had contractors there, we had health care professionals there, we had just citizens there… I wanted a good, diverse cross section of folks, not all educators. So as a matter of fact, there were no educators, only myself and my colleague there,” he said.

Mr. Swindle observed: “It was really amazing because after I talked to my friend who did one in LaBelle, and then after I talked to some of the folks from Lee County, we all kind of summarized where we were. And we all had — probably three of the five main topics were — common denominators amongst every single one of us.

“Education rose to the top — the need for a more robust education system and to do a better job educating our students, and specifically in educating our students on local opportunities!

“Transportation, we had some of the citizens come in who said they have friends who can’t get to doctor appointments because they don’t have any type of reliable public transportation. We felt like that was a hindering factor.

“And then health care, and specifically mental health care and drug abuse, which kind of all runs together. Those three main topics, as I talked to my friends who had (roundtables), they all said, ‘You know what, here’s what we talked about.’ And even in Lee County, those rose to the top of their topics as well,” he went on.

All of those subjects are the focus of attention for most of the municipalities and county governments in the region. Hendry and Glades are in talks about breaking off from a larger coalition of counties to establish their own regional public transportation. And there is no hotter topic at the moment, in view of the impending Airglades International Airport conversion to an international cargo hub, than workforce education.

“We had robust, great conversations about the history, why they (the three areas of highest concern) were problems, where they were problems. The group offered solutions, the group offered buy-in, they all offered ideas, and so it was just a great conversation,” Mr. Swindle said.

Almost everywhere locally, there were On the Table discussions. “I think there were some in Glades; also in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties. I know Commissioner (Emma) Byrd hosted one in Harlem, and I know there were some in LaBelle, as well, but I’m not sure, because that’s where it gets dicey.

“I think some of my fellow commissioners held some there, but … we are all so gun-shy because of that darn Sunshine Law. We don’t hardly talk because we’re so worried. We don’t want someone to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen them talking,’ you know, and so we just … I hesitate to even call them or talk to them.

“Which, stuff like this suffers because I would really like to collaborate with them on this stuff,” Mr. Swindle said.

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