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By Russ Cooper
After six years of spirited conversation, the innovative public education forum University of the Streets Café must have some good stories to share.
Appropriate, then, that the Storytelling Café was its May 1 anniversary party (and 272nd conversation). Hosted by Lynne Cooper, a Chilean-Trinidadian-Honduran-British immigrant, performing artist and community activist, about 50 people gathered at the Rad'a Yoga Studio on Rue Gilford to sip chai and wine, share tales and lively anecdotes, to laugh, or to sit back and simply enjoy the company.
What was being celebrated has now flourished into a presence in the Montreal community that's essentially become its own story.
Originally conceived and initiated by Institute in Community Development's Eric Abitbol, the first public conversation was held May 5, 2003. Inspired by similar projects (including SFU's Philosopher's Café), Abitbol wanted to use the established concept of public conversation, but take it in a slightly different direction.
"Back then, I was coordinating another program and helping Eric, my office mate, search things like 'Café Revolution', 'Learning Café' just to see what would come up. From what we found, he developed a methodology surrounding public conversation," says Elizabeth Hunt, the current University of the Streets Coordinator. "We figured, instead of just looking at philosophy, we could actually look at any topic at all."
Conversations have welcomed experts – both academic and non-academic – to contribute to subjects ranging from politics to environmental issues to fashion to happiness to sports and everything in between.
"If you look up the definition of 'conversation', it implies informality. It's different from a discussion, dialogue or deliberation. We create a space to start a conversation, but there's no attempt to try to control an outcome," she says.
Hunt, who's currently starting her masters in adult education after a baccalaureate in sociology and time at the School of Community and Public Affairs, has attended every conversation, but one, since becoming coordinator two years ago.
"I've learned that when you create a space for something like this, people will fill it. The level of analysis, sophistication and thinking just blows my mind every single time," she says. "Speaking for myself, it's really the community and their connection to the program that has the most impact for me."
Hunt is now appraising the organically-grown success of the Café to develop suggestions for other institutions who have recently contacted her, interested in creating similar programs.
"I call it community-based education, but there's not really a formal name for it. And maybe it's better that we don't. It's its own thing and if we try to formalize it, it could lose its zip," Hunt says.
The University of the Streets Café and the Institute in Community Development are now part of the School of Extended Learning and are regarded as one of the ways that Concordia fulfills its community engagement mandate. Organizers are currently considering ways to incorporate a public conversation or two into the 2010 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the gathering here of more than 9 000 delegates from learned societies from Canada and around the world. Hunt hopes to hold a public conversation surrounding one of the conference's main themes, open access to information and the permeable boundary between community and university.