Thousands take a seat to discuss challenges for Greater Akron

Some 6,000 citizens talked over breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday, exploring the issues facing Greater Akron.

On the Table Greater Akron, a Knight Foundation-funded effort to gauge public opinion, inspired 505 organizations and individuals to open up their libraries, churches, businesses, parks, cafes and homes to host an estimated 950 conversations centering on the biggest challenges and opportunities in Summit and Medina counties.

Much of the work was done in Akron by hosts who are connected to established organizations and big businesses. But there was room for all to participate. And many did.

Ideas from the discussion will be harvested over the next three weeks as participants log onto to fill out a survey. Responses, tagged with demographic information will allow researchers at the University of Chicago Institute of Policy and Civic Engagement to help inform funding priorities at the Akron Community Foundation, one of the area’s largest philanthropic organizations.

The broadest takeaways from the nearly 1,000 conversations won’t be known until early next year.

Each talk was unique to its settings or the composition of the crowds that gathered in circles on chairs or around tables of every shape. Public and private school students paused from learning to engage each other and adults in Revere, Hudson and Akron. Artist Nikki Bartel listened to a group deliberate at the Akron Art Museum, drawing inspiration from the discussion to cover her canvas.

As a partner, the Akron Beacon Journal/ hosted two discussions and has committed to share stories about the initiative at

At the John S. Knight Center, Head Start Director Allyson Lee read from the 2017 Community Pulse Report, in which Akron-based Center for Marketing and Opinion Research lists the top local concerns.

Heroin, which would be discussed that night in Hudson by a host who lost his son to an overdose. Government infrastructure, probably on the agenda for discussions led by Summit County Council or Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan’s cabinet. Employment, the subject of companies and educators across the county.

Crime and safety, the economy, education, housing, health care and more.

At another table, Akron Community Foundation President and CEO John T. Petures Jr. took advantage of his seat across from Akron Municipal Drug Court personnel. “What do you do if they’re homeless?” he asked of drug offenders.

“It’s hard,” began probation officer Alexa Montesano, who added afterward that “dealing with substance abuse all day, it’s nice to put it all out on the table.”

At the next table, Dan Rice, the president and CEO of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, asked a grad student studying social work at the University of Akron why Akron and Ohio export so much talent. “It’s a shame because we’ve got 16,000 college students right up the hill,” he said.

“I think Akron has done a good deal of work getting in tune with what millennials want,” the student, Megan Solsman, said. “I think we’re moving in that direction of investment in the arts and outdoors, in that feeling of being engaged in the community.”

In short, no engagement. No Megan. Hence, the conversation.

Skills gap

Inside a loading dock with the garage doors wide open, two groups of about 10 sat in circles on metal folding chairs. Around them, arrows pointed to exits and cobwebs hung from shelving.

Here, at Reuther Mold & Manufacturing in Cuyahoga Falls, experts and educators with backgrounds or an interest in factory jobs discussed barriers to filling open positions — such as two machinist slots that pay more than $20 an hour that have been unfilled for eight months for lack of qualified candidates.

Joe Nobile, the company’s chief operating officer, just returned from a conference of the National Tooling and Machining Association. “We’re all in the same boat,” said Karl Reuther, discussing the writing on the wall. “We’re all looking out on the factory floor at our workforce of 55- and 60-year-olds and saying …

“… Where’s all this talent going to go, and how do we replace it,” Nobile finished the thought. One recent employee worked a machine up until the day he died at age 84. Reuther said he holds onto institutional knowledge and solid workers as long as they’ll stick around.

It’s the workforce shortage — either because of undeveloped skills or outdated perceptions of dirty factory work — that ConxusNEOsought to tackle by hosting the On the Table discussion at Reuther Manufacturing. Conxus (pronounced connects us) works backward to find a solution: ask employers to identify high-demand jobs; understand required skills; then help modify curriculum in schools, colleges and trade programs to allow companies, communities and students to thrive.

Conxus hosted similar discussion throughout the day at Anderson International and KYOCERA SGS Precision Tools in Stow, SSP Fittings Corporation in Twinsburg, the Portage Lakes Career Center and finally Kenmore-Garfield High School, which houses the district’s engineering program. Each meeting was intentionally geared toward saving American manufacturing. Participants included college and local high school officials, business operators and workforce developers such as Ohio Means Jobs.

“It’s a matter of connecting the needs with the resources,” said Donald Ball, Stark State’s Dean of Engineering Technology Division.

“It would be interesting to get your senior to walk through our facility,” Reuther told a local educator.

“And not necessarily recruit for you but to show them the path to making $70,000,” agreed Kevin Vargyas with Cuyahoga Falls High School, which will provide school trips to factories Friday this week for Manufacturing Day.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been the right voice to connect the dots. That’s what we’re working on.” Vargyas continued within earshot of representatives from state government, Wells Fargo and other capable agencies.

Southside chats

Shortly before 4 p.m., a group of drug addicts, convicted felons and cops walked into the Front Porch Café on Grant Street in Akron. This group would be the sixth to participate in an On the Table conversation hosted by South Street Ministries, a super host.

The ministry’s founder, Duane Crabbs, decided to “go where the good shepherds won’t go” to offer gospel in a setting that feels more welcoming than a church to some “in the hood.” So he moved to Summit Lake 18 years ago and opened the café a block from a jail.

That’s where some of the 4 p.m. crowd came from. They’re between incarceration and being productive citizens, or not. That all depends on relationships, which Crabbs and his been-there-done-that staff foster each day.

On The Table offered a chance to shine a light on the good work done when people stand shoulder to shoulder to take on society’s toughest issues. The ministry kicked off the day at 8 a.m. with the monthly breakfast club. The crowd of 30 business, faith and community leaders was more like 20 with many attending other On the Table discussions around greater Akron.

At 9 a.m., the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services used the facilities. Then, after a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous group wrapped up at 11 a.m., some stuck around to put their ideas On the Table.

There was a breakthrough at 12:30 p.m. when Muslims from Akron Mijad, a local mosque, showed up to have lunch with the gang at South Street Ministries. “It was a real vibrant conversation,” said Joe Tucker, executive director for the South Akron Christian mission. “I’ve been trying to reach out to the Mijad for a while.”

They talked about street lighting and safety, trying to deconstruct the perceptions of unsafe streets that keep away the good people who have fled the inner city. Tucker explained to the followers of Islam why he moved back: the short version is “Jesus” and the longer version, he said, is “theology of place and proximity to people.”

In a nutshell, community. “I want to be a good neighbor among good neighbors,” Tucker said as the 4 p.m. group listened to inspirational stories of felons who have re-entered society.

An hour earlier, the South Street Ministry hosted an On the Table discussion with students who come often after school. Around dinner time, the group headed out to the Summit Lake Farmers Market to have one last discussion before doing it all again the next day.

For South Street Ministries, On the Table talks happen everyday. “We try to build a peer-to-peer support network,” said Donovan Harris, a former convict who now ministers to felons, “because who better to help with the transition [from prison] than someone who made it.”

Crabbs looked around at the good people doing good work like Harris, fellow staffer Toni Code-Jones, youth mentor Eric Nelson and Lamarr Atchison, the day’s inspirational speaker who wrapped up a four-year sentence in August.

“It’s relationships,” Crabbs said of using the broader platform of On the Table to spotlight community efforts that operate well below Akron’s top philanthropic and charitable organizations. “There’s no cure without care. What we have here,” if not a team of grant writers, he said, “is caring.”

Read original article here.

Livingston, Doug. (2017, October 3).  Thousands take a seat to discuss challenges for Greater Akron. Akron Beacon Journal. Retrieved from