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Do large institutions control what we eat?

University of the Streets Café's winter session kicks off on January 28 with an exploration of the food system
January 15, 2014
By Patricia Maunder

University of the Streets Café
“Everyone's a teacher, and everyone's a learner”: According to coordinator Susan Edey, the key to the University of the Streets Café is community contribution. | Image courtesy of Concordia University

For more than 10 years, the University of the Streets Café has hosted bilingual, public conversations on topical, provocative subjects both off campus and, more importantly, outside of the traditional classroom dynamic.

“It's not a lecture, and it's not a Q&A,” says the Office of Community Engagement's Susan Edey, who coordinates the program. Instead, the format “recognizes the expertise that everyone in the room has. Everyone's a teacher, and everyone's a learner.”

The model has proven itself a success: this year, the project will mark its 400th conversation.

According to Edey, one of Concordia's biggest strengths is that it's engaged with the city and enthusiastic about new ways of doing things. “A program like this is symbolic of all of that. We're right in the community, and we're dealing with some alternative issues that not every university would be comfortable dealing with.”

In the past, those issues have included rape culture, non-monogamy and Quebec’s language debate. This term’s talks — which begin this month with "Capitalism in the Cafeteria: How do large institutions influence our food systems?” — address subjects as wide-ranging as anti-capitalist theory and police-aboriginal relations.

Anyone can contribute to these conversations. As Edey explains, many of the topics have been suggested by individuals and organizations in the wider community.

This winter’s schedule includes a March 13 conversation about the toxicity of everyday products, including cosmetics. After a participant working in product development proposed the subject, Edey identified a community group, Breast Cancer Action Montreal, that was eager to provide a co-guest to participate in the talk.

Concordia students and staff also regularly contribute to the conversations. On March 17, Janis Timm-Bottos, an assistant professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, will take part in a discussion about art’s therapeutic potential for communities. The talk will take place at La Ruche d’Art: Community Studio and Science Shop, a storefront community-university space that she established in St. Henri.

Of course, that session — like most others — won’t be without the occasional contentious moment. Because they draw participants from a variety of age groups and walks of life, the conversations offer “the chance to talk about a topic with people who don’t all agree with you,” Edey says.

And while that may be one of its most valuable asset, there’s much more to University of the Streets Café than the debates it encourages.

“These conversations are a very interesting chance to experience a different type of learning, a different type of public interaction to what we're used to,” says Edey. “It's a great way to challenge yourself both to listen, if you're someone who often has the platform to speak, and to voice your ideas, if you're someone who's often in the audience.”

This year’s first University of the Streets Café conversation, “Capitalism in the Cafeteria: How do large institutions influence our food systems?,” takes place on Tuesday, January 28 at Coop la maison verte (5785 Sherbrooke St. W.,) from 7 to 9 p.m.

Learn more about the University of the Streets Café.


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