Talk show 

Ears to the ground at the Raven's Conversation Café

She holds a stone in her hand, and she pushes her thumb across one of its deep dimples. She has the floor, but for a moment, she is quiet. Six others sit with her in the back corner of the Raven Café, around a red and white checked tablecloth thrown across two tables that have been pushed together. Sipping on a latte or ginger ale, or toying with a wooden stir stick, the six listen. Pinballs clank, steam wheezes, and a girl in purple tights strolls back and forth. The group’s attention, though, stays focused on Beverly, who holds the stone. “Ahh,” she sighs, shaking her head. “Citizen of the world.” She has just reiterated one theme for this Thursday’s Conversation Café, a 90-minute, every-other-week gathering that takes place in 50 coffeehouses across the U.S. and 13 in Toronto, each around the signature red and white tablecloth.

Missoula recently joined the conversation. “It’s serendipity,” says Marianne Spitzform, asked about her role in bringing the movement to town. She had been thinking about how polarized our rhetoric has become, she says, and how we demonize and make enemies of the “other.” This past summer, she was about to throw out her July issue of the Utne Reader when a headline caught her eye. She pulled back her hand. The magazine was spared, and its contents taught her about Conversation Café. Soon, over a cup of coffee, Marianne was sharing the idea with Rose Habib, who, with Gavin Mouse, owns the Raven Café. The owners were open to hosting a group at their coffeehouse, which Mouse describes as “a blend of personal space and Bohemia.”

Conversation Café’s premise, according to its Web site, is that “when you put strangers, caffeine and ideas in the same room, brilliant things can happen.” Next week, the movement will celebrate its second annual Conversation Week. The purpose, says Marianne, is to promote the notion of civil discourse.

In a way, that civility is imposed by the format, and as evidenced by this meeting, the format is structured but not rigid. There’s a start time and a stop time; there are “agreements,” i.e. rules, printed on small cards that the facilitator, Marianne, sprinkles around the table ahead of time, along with nametags and pencils; there is a theme, which the group agrees upon.

Before the 7:30 p.m. start time, the early birds chit chat. “How did you get to Missoula?” Marianne asks Yvonne. Yvonne smiles and presses her mug to her chin. “Just sort of on a hunch.” Soon, Marianne checks the time. “Couple more minutes,” she says, “then, we go.” At 7:30, the participants trade chit chat for thoughtful, contemplative discourse. It isn’t always serious, as when the facilitator grants permission for one participant to be “glib and smarmy.” In accordance with the agreements, she explains, he will not be judged.

Tonight’s theme is what it means to be a citizen of the world, and what it means to feel helpless. The themes were originally discrete options, but one participant linked them together, saying “They seem related right now.”

So the conversation begins, and people who might not have otherwise crossed paths begin to share thoughts. The talking object, the stone, makes its way around the table, from the hand of a clinical psychologist, to a dancer who attends to overcome her fear of speaking in groups, to a geologist who calls himself a hardcore member, to a woman who says she felt heartened when she read an Oregonian headline, “Millions march for peace.”

They don’t want their full names used, and they ask not to be photographed.

The discussion alights in turn on the role of the military, The Ugly American, Afghanistan, the sunrise, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cynicism, living overseas in Russia or Brazil, reading Le Monde, and the prairie wilderness.

The evening is a ceremony of conversation simply for its own sake. It is not the gathering’s intent to arrive at action, but at deep reflection, says Marianne.

In fact, Conversation Café is not the only Missoula group that consciously creates dialogue. Another group, focused on prejudice reduction, is the National Coalition Building Institute. Five years ago, Amie Thurber helped bring NCBI to Missoula. Thurber believes conversation itself can be a form of activism. “Something happens when people get together and share their stories,” says Thurber. “It can result in changed behavior, and that is activism on some level.”

Tri Pham, program coordinator for UM’s Multicultural Alliance, also works with NCBI. “We get easily isolated in our culture,” says Pham. “We don’t get listened to.” Just look at the way people often greet each other, he says: “‘Hey-how’s-it-going’ and you keep walking.”

Like the philosophy cafés that proliferated in Paris in the 1990s, or salons in Seattle, the Conversation Café might be one more manifestation of people consciously seeking and creating community. Paul Miller, a UM sociologist and professor best known for his work in the areas of poverty and hunger, says that since the early days of industrialization and urbanization, sociologists have been paying attention to these trends. Of the Conversation Café idea, he says, “It’s probably part of the movement that sometimes waxes and sometimes wanes in this nation.” Sociologists have noticed a resurgence of churches, book clubs, and city planners arguing for front porches, says Miller. One researcher, he says, has named the phenomenon the “small group movement.” It is part of society’s attempt to reduce the impersonality of life and to enhance the skills of listening and communicating well.

Back at the Raven, Le Doux, who slips into a chair late into the conversation, listens to the others as she draws an outline of the earth on her nametag and scribbles “Global Responsibility” underneath her name. She learns that next week is the movement’s annual Conversation Week, and she, too, is unimpressed with the national theme: “Stop the World—Let’s Talk.” Earlier in the evening, Tony the hardcore geologist proposed something he thinks has a little more verve, and now he shares it with Le Doux: “Conversation Cabaret.”

“That’s so much better,” she says. “Ask the marketing people.”

Though bringing a handful of people together to talk in a coffee shop might not be a radical act in and of itself, the face-to-face meeting, the shared words and the respectful silences offer a break from so many technology-aided interactions effected by phone, by e-mail, or in that place in cyberspace where people “chat”-—even from that corner of the coffee house where one sits alone with headphones on, eyes fixed to notebook.

And the snippets of personal reflection sound heartfelt.

“My feelings of helplessness,” says Carla, “probably make me a better activist.” And she feels less helpless, she says, just watching the sun rise and set.

Marianne agrees.

“Like you,” she says, “I rely on the sunrise, feeding my animals, looking for the crocuses to break the crusty snow.”

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