Campus isolation fades when Cafe Politicus is in session

Every college campus needs a Cafe Politicus where people of all sorts celebrate free speech and exchange ideas, thus creating a viable community by inspiring spirit and enthusiasm.

Like many campuses across the country, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth faces the problems of anonymity, apathy, and adversity. Budgets are slashed, classes become larger, and fewer students live on campus. Students and faculty fill so many roles in addition to their academic ones that their time and energy is consumed, increasing stress and further isolating them from one another.

But a groundswell of excitement is building on campus as Cafe Politicus, UMassD's equivalent to London's Hyde Park, proves that even this noxious combination can be surmounted.

At noon, seven days a week, people gather in the UMassD library. They come from administrative and faculty offices, student dorms, and the houses and apartments in the town. A few attend every day; many come once or twice a week. All they do is talk - freely and openly - and encourage action.

Some who attend are struggling, single-parent students needing a connection with others. Others are students frustrated at never being listened to. Some are over-worked administrators, tired of trying to minimize the impact of budget cuts. Even townspeople attend, eager to add their concerns to the mix. We are black people, Latinos, Portuguese, Asians, whites, old, young, and all ages in between.

Everyone talks and offers ideas and opinions on topics ranging from politics and careers to housing, healthcare, books, and movies.

Begun by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dragic Vukomanovic, Cafe Politicus grew out of his belief that educational institutions should embody the spirit of our country's constitution - where all are equal and all voices can be heard. The mission was simple: Offer people a sense of belonging, interrelatedness, and a forum for ideas, and thus build that elusive community.

And it happened - even for me.

As the owner of a small virtual business and a part-time lecturer at UMassD, I spend about 10 hours a day online. Modern technology permits me to work out project details with clients, receive student essays, and keep apprised of current events. During these hours, I am secluded in my home office. I really thought I didn't need a community; I had instant access.

But when threats of terror and potential war permeate the media, when individuals are isolated from human interaction and contact, there is not only a need but a passionate desire for a viable community.

So I have started going to Cafe Politicus. Each time I attend, I see a group of disparate people smiling and talking animatedly. I have no idea where the talk will lead because Politicus never has an agenda and there is no moderator. But I do know the talk will be vibrant and heated. I also know I'll meet at least one new face.

There is no ivory tower at Cafe Politicus. We are steeped in reality, pressed for time, but in need of human connections.

By coming together to discuss and argue, we recognize that among our differences are similarities.

And it is this - a physical connection among people who want to make something better - that holds us together. There is much in the world we have little control over. We can control parts of our lives and activities - and when we learn we can share it with others.

To start a Cafe Politicus takes only a few chairs and one determined, courageous person.

Jennifer Hicks is president of WordsWork Consulting Inc, and a part-time lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

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