Saturday, January 3, 2009

Conversation Cafes: Look Who's Talking

By Joe Leeak
(Originally published in May of 2002 by The Seattle Press)

Freedom of speech is a dangerous thing.  At least that's what England's Charles II thought when he banned coffee houses in 1675.  He claimed that they were frequented by groups of malcontents who had "evil and dangerous effects on society".  But coffee house chatter between diverse groups of people is exactly what north Seattle resident and activist Vicki Robin is promoting with her latest project, Conversation Cafés.  "For me, this is about lowering the taboo against talking to strangers about things that matter," Robin said.

In the days leading up to Earth Day last Sunday, Robin invited everyone to attend a Conversation Café' and talk about the important issues faced by our planet.  Conversation Cafés are a homegrown way for people to engage in big talk in small groups that meet regularly through out the Puget Sound region.  The Café' discussions have been inspired by the need to talk about life in America since September 11, Enron, the Middle East, and most recently-- Earth Day.

Conversation Cafés have been taking place in Seattle since August of last year and are Robin's latest effort in promoting positive change in society.  The basic format is hosted discussions that use proven conversation techniques, allowing interesting exchanges to take place.  Conversation topics are usually determined at individual Cafés by both the host and the participants.  Topics discussed at a special Earth Day Conversation Café', which took place downtown at Elliot Bay Books, included: favorite strategies for making a livable future, ways that everyone can live within the earth's means, and thing people can do to raise earth-friendly awareness.

Three regular participants at the Fremont Conversation Café' recently decided to participate together in an Earthday Day beach cleanup at Golden Gardens Park.  But Café' participants don't need to worry about coming away from a Conversation Café' with a to-do list as long as their arm.  "No action items will be delegated," Robin said, "and if you form a committee you're on your own."

For the last three decades Robin has lived in shared housing situations where the core of the community is centered around a communication process that is very similar to what happens at a Conversation Café'.  The process allows each person to speak in turn until they are finished while others listen without judgment.  "After 31 years that [process of] deep listening, honest speaking, full disclosure, and no judgment opened up a profoundly deep awareness," Robin said, "and I have a deep trust of the process."

Robin's idea for public Conversation Cafés hatched four years ago: First as a radio show that never went on the air, next as a TV show that never was, and then last summer, in its simplest form, as groups of people sitting together on a weekly basis to speak of what was really important to them at neighborhood cafés and coffee shops.

Robin decided to lead a Conversation Café at the Wedgewood neighborhood's Grateful Bread deli-bakery near her home.  A core group of people began to come every week.  Then after the events of September 11 she felt that it was time for the concept to go public on a larger scale.  Today there are nearly 20 Conversation Cafés meeting regularly throughout the region.  Robin said they are meant to be study groups. "[They're] about the expectation that you can go down to you local Café' where a bunch of interesting people are sitting around talking about interesting universal things, and you can drop into the conversation."

Robin's hope is that someday Conversation Cafés will not have to exist.  "It could just be a regular thing-- just uncork it.  If we can't talk about the future we want, we will never generate the social will to get there.  Debate isn't enough.  Lectures aren't enough.  We have to think together-- and Conversation Cafés are designed to allow people with divergent views to listen to learn from one another."

[When this article was written in 2002 Conversation Café discussions took place every Thursday in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood at Wit's End Bookstore and in the Ballard neighborhood on Tuesdays at the Penny Café.  You can learn about Conversation Cafés today at: .]