“It’s OK to be heated; It’s OK to be you, and the whole point of this is freedom of speech,” said organizer Curt Collins, who also runs Avant Garden Farm and Venue in Cullowhee.
The idea was inspired by “TED Talks,” a globally renown sounding board that collects speeches from “the world’s most inspiring voices” under the moniker “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Hundreds of community versions have sprung up around the nation in the likeness of TED, offering a public forum for stimulating conversation on a local level and sparking dialogue between listeners and participants from all walks of life.
For Collins, it’s about providing Western North Carolina with just such a podium for much-needed connectivity between relatives, friends and neighbors of Southern Appalachia.
“We encourage everyone to exercise their First Amendment right,” he said. “We allow anyone to say anything, and if it gets vulgar or attacking, I wrangle it in.”
Starting at 6:30 p.m. every other Wednesday, the program begins with one presenter who has up to 20 minutes to talk on a pre-chosen topic that they’ve prepared for. After that, the floor is opened up to any participant to voice a viewpoint, one at a time in a “round-robin” fashion. “What does it mean to be an American?” and National Defense Authorization Act were the first two subjects explored within the walls of the café.
“I don’t think there’s enough thinking being done as a society, as an individual, and this takes you out of your comfort zone, forcing your opinions to stand on their own, and not on the friendship of others,” said first-time participant Vince Gendusa.
Gendusa’s intent in coming to Drink-N-Think was to listen and think about things, and if he had something to contribute, he would.
“I think it’s important to question fundamental concepts that individuals accept on a daily basis,” he said. “Attending here will allow them to strengthen their current opinions or consider that possibly they need do some rethinking.”
Here, those of opposing views are on neutral ground, without fear of persecution or ridicule — without the walls that all too often separate those with differing opinions.
“Alcohol can sometimes tear that wall down, but it also can contribute to individuals getting distracted or going on a tangent,” Gendusa said. “So, you have to find a balance between all of that, which I think we do here.”
The topic at hand last week was “Is money necessary for an economy?” Collins started with a short personal observation about the idea of money and if a barter system could function on a regional, national or international playing field. Like the conch in the novel Lord of the Flies, a large spaghetti squash was passed around to the person who had the floor without interruption.
Conversation quickly ricocheted around the room, bouncing between the idea of localizing economies, either connecting or disconnecting globalization, and how a barter system could flourish in a modern world, amid other key points.
“Each one of these events has been really unique,” said Tabitha Miller, an employee at the Mad Batter. “There have been heated discussions, but there has also been a high level of respect of one another. It’s cool to see all the different sorts of people that have come in.”
The clock struck 9 p.m. as a whirlwind of conversation wound down. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, handshakes and smiles were offered to each participant in gracious thanks of providing a certain angle on the issue. It’s the essence of what a democracy is, an array of people coming together, searching for a common ground.
“[In a community], we sometimes don’t know what everyone is thinking, and it’s important to come together and see the views, to connect in order to progress in a positive way,” said first-time participant Sara Shields. “This was great, and I can’t wait to come back again.”
Want to go?
Drink-N-Think takes place from 6:30 to 9 p.m. every other Wednesday at the Mad Batter Bakery & Café in Cullowhee. The next free speech open mic session is scheduled for March 13 (with the caveat that schedules are subject to change). Free and open to the public. Donations are accepted.