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October 24, 2002 Taking it to the streets



by Melanie Takefman

Crowded around the stage of a downtown bar, dozens of young bohemians listen intently as a woman explains how she has been ostracized, taunted and unable to find clothes because she is fat. Some audience members clap and cheer, others nod, and a few do nothing, perplexed.

This was the scene at the launch of University of the Streets Café, a public discussion series organized by Concordia’s Institute in Management and Community Development (IMCD) entitled “Feminism and the Body: What’s Wrong with a Little Fat?” The special guests for the evening were two members of Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off, an activist/performance group dedicated to promoting fat pride.

Designed to bridge academia and the community, the pilot edition of University of the Streets will feature 12 sessions in three themes: Environment and Development, Feminist Contro-versies and The Joy of Food. They will take place in cafés around the city and are open to the public and free of charge.

Eric Abitbol, the project’s coordinator, said that people think of university as an ivory tower, snobbish and inaccessible. The goal of University of the Streets to “encourage people to validate each other’s knowledge and to move away from the expert-layperson dynamic.”

The series was inspired by the Philosophers Café, a public education initiative at Simon Fraser University, and the forum series on social change in the IMCD’s summer training program, which Abitbol said needed a stronger conversational component.

Concordia’s Centre for Continuing Education is funding the pilot project, but Abitbol said that he is seeking funding from other sources to continue the series.

The IMCD’s mandate is to create alternative spaces for education and bridge the university and the greater community. It runs a week-long annual summer training program, and administers the Graduate Diploma in Community and Economic Development at Concordia. While University of the Streets cannot be taken for academic credit yet, Abitbol encourages professors to propose partnerships that would allow students to integrate the Café into their curriculum.

Abitbol said that University of the Streets is part of a trend toward new forums of expression. He gave as an example the recent Shalom/Salaam conference, which brought Jews and Arabs together at Concordia, and the massive protests against the war in Iraq.

During his opening remarks at University of the Streets launch, Abitbol encouraged people to “include, not alienate,” and warned against attacking others.

However, practice deviated from theory: The crowd booed one man who asked if dancing had helped the members of Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off lose weight, and another who suggested that self-esteem is a way to combat weight discrimination. However, the audience members broached topics like class issues in body image, and several gave poignant personal testimonies.

Abitbol affirmed that creating an atmosphere to support dissent would be a great challenge for University of the Streets. Society is at “a junction of radical individualism and collective ethics,” and open debate is part of the learning process. He feels the forum will evolve. “I would love to see people take greater intellectual and emotional risks.”

For more information, visit univcafe.concordia.ca.