Think & Drink is a happy-hour dicussion series that sparks provocative conversations about big ideas, inviting you to participate in a facilitated public conversation with panelists who have expertise in the subject at hand.
By Meghan Reedy, MHC Program Officer
It’s a simple idea, really, to orchestrate a conversation about some important topic, with a few drinks and some experts.
The format is easy to outline. An audience assembles in a friendly, sociable space that serves drinks, and they settle in. A moderator introduces a small panel of two or three people with relevant expertise and prompts them to speak briefly to the issue at hand, then invites the audience to discuss the issue amongst themselves in small groups. After twenty minutes or so, the group reconvenes – audience and panelists – and spends some time having a single, larger conversation. Then it’s over. People linger or spill out into the night.
But behind each successful Think & Drink session lies a surprising amount of careful thought, deliberate planning, and deft interpersonal skill.
To begin with, the topic on the table must be large enough to be compelling to a wide range of people, but small enough to be given a clear name; it must be able to stand alone, but also find a meaningful place in a series; it must be important both to people in general and to the specific people who live in Maine communities. The current series was developed in close consultation with scholars and staff: it is centered on citizenship, and each session explores how citizenship is shaped by particular issues: climate change, inequality, dissent.
These are the topics for this year’s Think & Drink sessions all across the state, but the conversations that takes place around them are molded to suit the particular communities in which they occur.
In Bangor this year, the setting is Nocturnum Drafthaus, a local hotspot that offers local beer, live music, and good food for not much money on days like Taco Tuesday. It’s a place people like to come to and relax.
The moderator here is Dr. Darren J. Ranco, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maine at Orono, as well as Director of Native American Studies and Coordinator of Native American Research. Darren lives in Bangor’s close neighbor Orono, where he also grew up – a townie, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a real Mainer. He left when he was 17 and stayed away for 20 years, while he attended college and graduate school, and began his career, until it was time to move home. Darren thus brings to each Think & Drink discussion both broad professional expertise and a deep understanding of the local community, as well as his considerable charm.
In planning a session, Darren is keenly aware that while the topic must be roomy in order to invite people into the conversation, when it comes time to actually talk there must be particular narratives and perspectives to allow a way in. For his September session on “Citizens and the Climate,” Darren sought out two perspectives grounded in Mainers’ own experience: that of Long Island lobsterman Steve Train and of people-focused climate activist Andy Burt, whose current work is the Down to Earth Storytelling Project.
Each session’s audience is also particular, and every time a surprise. The events are free, and registration is not required. People come with a range of investments and experiences around the session’s topic: some with deep knowledge and committed views, but others are just interested, or curious, or come along with a friend, or happening by.
As he does this work, Darren thinks a great deal about how the cultural landscape of Bangor seems to be reshaping itself. This has been happening for a long time. Even as recent census data suggests the population of the city is declining, the work of the Downtown Bangor Partnership is showing real positive effects. Bangor now hosts a successful concert series and supports arts events in a variety of ways – and there’s a burgeoning local beer scene, with a growing roster of excellent local breweries and a lively annual beer festival.
In locating Think & Drink amid all this, Darren starts by comparing it with Green Drinks. In Bangor, that group meets at a different brewery or pub and arranges targeted project work at places like the local homeless shelter. Darren says, “Green Drinks is a social group that also Does Good” (capital letters seem to be implied) – “but Think & Drink is different. It’s more like a salon.”
But what, one might well ask, does it do?
When the stage is set and the event begins, Darren aims to create a series of ‘lens-turning moments’.
The first such moment happens as the panelists speak in “Citizens and the Climate.” When Steve Train describes what he sees from his boat in the Casco Bay, everyone – however much they already know or don’t know about climate change – has their existing lens turned, and refocuses on Steve’s particular experience.
A second moment comes when the members of the audience turn to listen to each other, and a third when the group reconvenes as a whole. In this iterative process the lens sometimes reveals other, abiding concerns beyond the ‘official’ topic—concerns like what does it mean to be ‘a Mainer’? What investments and experiences do people bring with them as they think about their world – and how do those of someone born and raised in Bangor differ from, cohere with, and contradict those of someone recently arrived here? These are concerns that seem particularly alive in Bangor, which Darren can’t help but refer to as “up here in the real Maine”
What successful Think & Drink sessions do, then, is provide multiple opportunities for people to test, enliven, and recalibrate their ideas and opinions. Many of these are opportunities for listening: to the panelists, to the moderator, to the others at the table. But equally valuable are the handful of moments in which each person has the chance to express their own view on a complex issue to this small, receptive group of strangers. In this moment, a person has the chance to hear themselves think literally – to practice saying, or trying to say, what they mean about something that matters.
The final turn comes at the end of the session. Darren likes to close with an open question: “So. What can we do? We here, what can we do?” In asking this, he asks us to go beyond even this idea work and consider how what we think might shape what we do.
This is heady stuff. Then Darren laughs. “But it isn’t the masterclass in whatever topic,” he told me. “It can’t be. People are also there to have a drink and good time; it needs to be light as well.”
How does he keep it light? The same way he keeps our conversation light: with wry humor, often at his own expense. He hopes it helps the group keep some perspective. “We all need to get over ourselves a little, don’t we, so we can talk the difficult things through.”
So what Think & Drink really does isn’t all “thinking” after all. Each session invites us, with help, to walk a familiar tightrope: to think about hard things in a sociable way. Which is, at bottom, what a community needs to do.
This article will be appearing in print in the MHC’s fall 2016 newsletter.