Critical thinking in the community
Most universities organize lectures for their host communities; Concordia also starts conversations. University of the Streets Café begins its fall season on September 15 with a session on extremism, the first of nine free evening discussions on timely topics.
“The Stigma of Extremism: What scars do we bear as a society?” will begin with input from two invited guests: Tasleem Damji, a clinical psychologist who recently developed a program to counter violent extremism, and Adeela Arshad-Ayaz, an assistant professor of Educational Studies at Concordia.
Other conversations this semester include “Pedestrian Paradise: How can we make our neighbourhoods more walkable?,” “From AI to Animals: How do we define intelligence?” and “Participatory Mapping: How can maps empower our communities and affect change?”
Founded in 2003, the University of the Streets Café public conversations program, aims to “make learning more accessible,“ says Susan Edey, program and communications coordinator in Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement. That’s why these gatherings are conducted off campus, in a variety of Montreal venues.
“Learning can happen in all kinds of places, not just classrooms. For our students, the university seems like a natural place to go. But someone who never went to university, for example, might not feel comfortable on campus, or even know their way around,” Edey explains.
The two-hour sessions aim to go beyond being simple speaking engagements, she adds. “When we say ‘conversation’ we really mean it. It’s not a Q-and-A, it’s not a lecture, it’s not a workshop. It’s really a chat among a group of strangers. We make it as open and accessible as we can.”
One or two “guests” — don’t call them experts — are on hand and each session is hosted by a volunteer moderator, occasionally a professor, but more often someone involved in community activities.
Last year’s conversation evenings drew about 35 participants on average, which Edey says is a good number to allow for a lively discussion. Everyone is welcome, no registration is required, and the evenings are what Edey calls “Montreal-style bilingual” — in both English and French, with no repetition. Anyone who can’t handle one of these languages is paired up with another participant who offers to help them with whisper translation.
Because “technology stunts participation,” Edey says, there’s a no-recording policy at the conversations.
Assembling the schedule is Edey’s task, but she doesn’t work alone. “You can’t plan a participatory event without a participatory planning process. I don’t see it as my job to develop topics on my own and convince people that they’re worth talking about. I work with the community to come up with the ideas,” she says.
However contentious or emotional the subject matter is, the events are designed to remain civil. “There’s always a risk, any time you’re hosting a public event, that there will be people who participate in more or less constructive ways … But there’s something really magical about being open to everyone, even though there are some challenges that come with that.”
The moderators play an important role in maintaining a safe and dynamic space. “Everyone has to raise their hands to talk. We don’t use microphones. We ask people to be mindful of their speaking time and the moderator normally reserves the right to interrupt if someone is going on for too long.”
Also, priority is given to those who haven’t yet spoken. These practices are explained to participants beforehand, Edey explains. “When you put that up front, people are pretty receptive … We try to make it a welcoming environment.”
The September 15 event begins at 7 p.m. at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, 1200 Atwater Ave. at Tupper St.
Check out the full fall-term University of the Streets Café conversation schedule.