Everybody's talking in Seattle this week

Talk may be cheap, but don't say that to people in Washington State, Arizona, California, and Kentucky. This week, folks in those locales - and others - will be gathering in more than 83 cafes to take part in a seven-day celebration of community building and just plain talk.

Conversation Week, as the marathon talk session is called, will consist of organized group discussions of world issues and ways to achieve positive social change. The event was first held last year.

"When people come together to have a deep, meaningful conversation, they become empowered, they're able to clarify their own ideas and other people's ideas," says Jim Moore. Mr. Moore hosts two "Conversation Cafes" - the precursor to Conversation Week - in Santa Cruz, Calif. "That's important right now in a culture paralyzed with fear."

Vicki Robin, co-author of "Your Money or Your Life" and founder of the New Road Map Foundation, started the first Conversation Cafe in July 2001 at a bakery near her home in Seattle. The idea was to build a network of people interested in social change. Then came 9/11, and everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk. By January 2002, more than 25 Conversation Cafes had sprouted.

Held in neighborhood coffeehouses and eateries, Conversation Cafes are 90-minute discussions involving groups of eight to 10 people, one of whom is a trained host or facilitator. Topics are usually predetermined at individual cafes.

The basic format is four rounds of conversation. During the first two rounds, each participant speaks in turn, commenting on the topic, then responding to another member. During the third round, conversation opens up, and people can speak in no particular order. Just before the end, the host asks participants to explain briefly what ideas they are taking home with them.

The result is part feel-good therapy, part egalitarian political gathering.

But Conversation Cafes have plenty of grass-roots democratic potential, says John Gastil, a communications professor at the University of Washington. "It's ... potentially talk of the kind that's all too rare these days."

At a recent Conversation Cafe in Seattle's sleek, Asian-style Cafe Chazen, 11 men and women discussed the topic: "How do we act and decide on what's right without imposing on others?"

As the conversation progressed, talk moved from the conflicted values among immigrant families to interpersonal and international diplomacy, to "manifest destiny" and President Bush's foreign policy. The discussion shifted back and forth between personal anecdote and political analysis.

"One of the great things that happens here is the threads of ideas that people throw out, which lead to new thoughts and concepts," said Masud Kibria, an engineer who has been coming to Cafe Chazen for the past six months. "You see the evolution of ideas."

Other Chazen participants said they enjoy the nonjudgmental atmosphere. "People really listen here," says Lauren Naismith, a counselor who often finds herself thinking about the conversation topics throughout the week. Topics covered by the Chazen cafe during the past year have included mental illness, the Andrea Yates trial, what members are doing to create community, and characteristics of a patriot.

Occasionally, something derails a conversation, such as "conversation hogs," people who are shy, or members who come with the sole purpose of imposing a narrow political agenda.

And sometimes the talks get channeled into action. One group decided to participate in a Seattle beach cleanup.

Action agendas are not, however, an integral part of the Conversation Cafe. What makes people return each week is the energy that emanates from thoughtful dialogue, says Ms. Robin.

She ultimately envisions creating "a culture of conversation" in communities around the US. This would involve a civic space, where strangers meet and share ideas - along the lines of Italian piazzas.

The goal for Seattle's Conversation Week, which is being cosponsored by several organizations, including the city's Department of Neighborhoods and the University of Washington School of Public Affairs, is much smaller: Focus all talks on the theme of "Stop the World; Let's Talk."

Some people may wonder if all this talk will really pay off, or if it'll be nothing but hot air.

For Peg Worthman, a Cafe Chazen member, the chats hold a lot of personal appeal. "We've made friendships here, we take walks together," she says. "For a person who lives alone, the group has given [me] a sense of community."

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