Discussion isn’t dead

By Dan Delmar on May 29, 2008

It’s hard to find good conversation these days. Who has time to talk about important issues in our communities when we’re drained at the end of the day from working longer hours for less pay? Kids, bills, chores…and American Idol is on, too.

For the last five years, Eric Abitbol has been dragging people out of the house and into Montreal cafés to, well, talk. University of the Streets Café, the organization he founded with help from Concordia University, holds intimate public discussions on a wide range of issues around the city. Unlike a typical lecture or Q&A, the Cafés have little structure and allow participants to openly express themselves when and how they wish.

“It’s the development of a community of people that challenge the dominant ideology and logic,” Abitbol said, at the fifth season’s 38th and final event earlier this month. “It’s an articulation of what we already know: A conversation is taking a certain risk, being adventurous, re-evaluating our thinking…to imagine who we are as individuals within a society.”

The last discussion focused on the broad theme of community conversations was held at Café Sarajevo on St-Laurent Blvd., in Little Italy. The group tries to spread out the events all around Montreal to encourage citizens of different background to attend. Fewer than 20 people showed up, but it’s hard to imagine having a truly enlightening conversation in two hours with many more participants. Publicizing these events and attracting a larger crowd may, ironically, hinder the quality of future gatherings.

The amateur philosophers were students, young professionals, mothers, businesspeople, retirees; the common thread was the frustration of not being able to express themselves in public more often.

“Sometimes we really don’t know what we think until we get the chance to express it,” said William, a middle-aged businessman in need of a soapbox.  Later on that evening, he told a vaguely-worded story about his supposed success in convincing a major corporation to rethink some project; it was all quite nebulous.

With all its benefits, one drawback is that people like William can be totally anonymous if they so choose. It’s a very tolerant atmosphere, free of judgement; a sort of parallel liberal universe where debaters can feel at ease making asses of themselves.

Teresa Tropea, a young accountant, hesitated on a couple of occasions, trying to gauge the audience’s reaction to her opinions. She seemed concerned they wouldn’t quite get it.

It’s great to have these discussions, “but what’s the next step? How do we solve these problems?” she asked. At the end of these evenings, she asks herself if anything was accomplished. After an exchange with other participants, she conceded that just having a quality conversation with a vibrant group of concerned citizens was all the payback she would need.


For more information on University of the Streets Café, visit:  www.univcafe.org


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