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 Concordias Institute in
Management and Community Development (IMCD) entitled Feminism and
the Body: Whats 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
Eric Abitbol, the projects 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 others
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 IMCDs summer training program, which Abitbol said
needed a stronger conversational component.
Concordias 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 IMCDs 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
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
For more information, visit univcafe.concordia.ca.