ASHLAND -- The Ashland mayor, six journalists from four different outlets, several local leaders and approximately three dozen concerned Ashland County residents walk into a room.
The result isn't the punchline to a joke. It's a serious conversation about the betterment of Ashland County.
On Monday, Jan. 27, news media collaborative and engagement organization Your Voice Ohio teamed with Ashland Source, Richland Source and Ashland University's The Collegian, to bring a community conversation to the Ashland YMCA's banquet hall.
The conversations, which have taken place across Ohio, addressed questions like: What does a community look like where people are happy and live fulfilled lives? What would you change about your community to move in the direction of happy and fulfilled lives? And what are the assets of the community that can be applied to making change?
By the end of the two-hour session, the group of nearly 40 identified not only the problems their communities faced, but also how everyone -- leaders, journalists and citizens -- could counter those issues and implement solutions.
"What I think was good to see was we had a diverse group of people in attendance," said Mayor Matt Miller. "And while they may have come here with one particular aspect of our community in mind or one particular issue in mind, everyone had to sit and listen to all of our groups' concerns.
"And the good news is, when the groups reported out and voted (on top issues), almost everyone was on the same page about what our priorities need to be and what it takes to make our communities strong and vibrant."
The conversation kicked off just after 6 p.m. with a relatively quiet crowd. After signed in, people ate pizza around tables with small groups. Many only spoke with those who came along with them. Others started casual conversations with those at their table.
Then, Your Voice Ohio's Doug Oplinger, a former editor at the Akron Beacon Journal, began asking questions and encouraging people to talk among each other and to even switch tables. The room lit up.
"My number one impression was that Ashlanders really do care about their community. I say that because the type of individuals you drew. It wasn't what you might have expected," said Karen DeSanto-Kellogg, an attorney at DeSanto and Kellogg Law Office and candidate for Ashland County Juvenile and Probate Judge. "You saw the worker bees. You saw the everyday people in a lot of ways.
"There were a few people with leadership roles, but what you really had were people who want to make Ashland a better place."
Mayor Miller says he came with intentions to solely listen. Then, the first question arose, and he was asked to answer it in the same way as everyone else.
On an over-sized sticky note, the group was asked: "What does a community look like where people are happy and live fulfilled lives?"
Following table discussions, the group brought their ideas together, sharing their thoughts while Solutions and Engagement Editor Brittany Schock jotted them down.
"I wasn't going to say anything, and then I ended up bursting out," Miller said. "Common values, that's what makes us strong right now. We're on the same page about what we need. We all recognize we need strong families, housing, nice parks and green spaces, active and passive recreation, strong infrastructure, adequate food and necessities available for people.
"When I talk about common values, that's the values I'm talking about. Even though that group came from different political backgrounds, different age demographics, different income levels, for the most part everyone put together the same list of priorities."
Plenty of ideas were pondered throughout the evening, but when the crowd was asked to vote on the top issues using two red dots, three rose to the top and five were brought up for further discussion.
The top three were housing, communication and taking care of local children. The other two were related to employment and infrastructure.
DeSanto-Kellogg was already seated at the table assigned to discuss housing. It piqued her interest so she stayed where she was positioned.
It mattered to her, but to the people who migrated to her table, it was even more meaningful. They came with ideas and excitement about ways to make land more available and address zoning concerns, she said.
"Again, the big take away for me was even those who weren't in leadership roles, they want to take part in meaningful conversations," DeSanto-Kellogg said.
Now, she believes people will want to know what's next.
The session ended at 8 p.m., and until nearly 9 p.m., some stayed to further their conversations outside the forum.
More information and stories on the conversations from Monday will be coming in the next several weeks.