Sunday Morning Salons: Cultivating Engaged Citizenship – Alison Colpitts and Helen Mo

Posted by: on Sep 13, 2014 | No Comments

“Somewhere between a faith community potluck and the French salon, we carved out a working model and named it Sunday Morning Salon.” – Sunday Morning Salon creators Alison Colpitts and Helen Mo look back on thirteen successful salons and reflect on what it means to “stay informed” in today’s world.

Acknowledging a problem

As with most fruitful collaborations, Sunday Morning Salon began with a conversation. One day in the fall of 2013, we were chatting about our generation’s reputation for political apathy when the conversation took a reflexive turn. We realized that, despite having five post-secondary degrees between us and being compulsive newsreaders, we are not – strictly speaking – informed voters.

We have a cursory acquaintance with the issues raised in any given election: “oil sands” conjures up fracking and environmental protests; “internet privacy” evokes Edward Snowden and the sense that someone rifles through our Gmail. But informed citizenship ought to be more than imagery and gut feelings, we reasoned. Like most similarly educated Millennials, we have two decades of education; a world of information at our fingertips, and secure access to food, shelter, and clothing. Canadian democracy isn’t perfect, but hardly warrants cynical disengagement. So why this gap between our civic aspirations and reality?What was holding us back? We got to hypothesizing:

  1. One’s twenties and thirties are a busy time, with academic and professional priorities consuming much of waking life and administrivia taking the rest. We want to know more, but building nuanced understandings of, say, pension reform is low on the priority list.
  2. The information age has its drawbacks. Thanks to never-ending feeds and the 24-hour news cycle, staying informed is more like leaping aboard a bullet train than reading the Saturday paper over brunch. Moreover, this stream of information doesn’t come with an effective forum for debate or digesting complex issues, either.
  3. Our privilege insulates us from civic accountability. Whether young people vote or not, whether we understand the latest omnibus crime bill or not, and whether the mayor of Canada’s biggest city is sober or not, our personal and professional lives continue largely unimpeded.

Ay, perhaps the rub was this: civic engagement falls into a crack between personal and professional accountability. It demands a cut of the personal time we so jealously guard for leisure but lacks the structure of resources, incentives, and obligations of formal learning or paid work. We refused to believe that Millennials are inherently lazy or apathetic about civic issues, but re-tweets and café chatter clearly weren’t cutting it. Over the course of subsequent conversations, we committed to improving on our ignorance in an enjoyable – and therefore sustainable– way.

Towards a working model

So what model or incentive would cultivate the informed, engaged citizenship that we wished to see in ourselves? We had both attended religious services growing up, and it occurred to us that sermons, small groups, and even community potlucks provide parishioners a time and space that exists outside of the work-leisure spectrum. In this structured yet social setting, one might be prompted to consider a variety of topics, from values and practices to world events. Today, the decline of religious affiliation among 18-34-year-olds is well established and we certainly didn’t think that reversing that trend would magically transform us into informed voters. However, we did get thinking about how to create a dedicated, structured-yet-social setting for discussing current events with our peers. Eventually, we took the French salon as our model. In eighteenth-century France, salons provided a space (albeit an elitist one) for the cultivation of a public sphere. Individuals from various professions gathered in a private home for socializing and curated conversations. Each salon’s hostess kept a watchful eye on the proceedings to maintain an agreeable ambience and lively circulation of ideas. If it worked for the nascent French public sphere, why shouldn’t it work for us?

Somewhere between a faith community potluck and the French salon, we carved out a working model and named it Sunday Morning Salon. Built around semi-regular discussion sessions about current events, it would bridge the personal and professional divide in two ways. First, we fostered a congenial atmosphere by beginning each session with a light potluck brunch. Second, even if guests had zero familiarity with a given topic, we scaffolded informed conversations by emailing links to diverse resources in advance. At each Salon, attendees could therefore build on each other’s insights, become better informed, and enjoy food and drink in a social setting.

The Salon comes to life

We launched Sunday Morning Salon in November of 2013 and have since hosted over a dozen remarkably successful sessions. Were laziness and apathy the be-alls and end-alls of millennial disengagement, we would have soon found ourselves hosting a two-person conversation. But each time, attendees have come enthusiastic and prepared. Topics have ranged from drug policy to the rise of social technologies. We maintain a website featuring past Salon topics and resources, and periodically editorialise (or rant) about current topics on a blog.

Part of our mandate is to keep discussion topics timely. As such, we draw from the zeitgeist, using current events as a springboard to broader themes. During the Winter Olympics, attendees considered the controversy over Russia’s hosting and the gender politics of sporting-event coverage. When Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program caused a national furor, we discussed immigration policy and the Canadian labour economy. We watch for trends in news and social media, then turn them into topics for our Salons and blogs.

One of the beautiful things about the Salons is that people often arrive with open minds on the issue at hand, ready to hear a variety of opinions and to respectfully disagree. Although most attendees have been Millennials with extensive educations and similar political inclinations, our experience thus far has taught us to value divergences in perspectives, experiences, occupational histories, and discussion styles. It doesn’t come easy, but it is critical.

Looking ahead

We did not set out to revolutionize the world or even our electoral system. We set out in the direction of informed civic engagement and built a model that would take us there, if only incrementally, and if only in small numbers. A group of young and youngish people brunching and chatting in someone’s living room may not reverse the tide of voter disengagement in one fell swoop. But with every passing Salon, we read, listen, learn, and formulate informed opinions. With every passing Salon we activate in ourselves a constellation of knowledge-threads, some of which will inevitably be pulled upon in future conversations, news stories and ballot boxes. When that time comes, each of us might think back to some pleasant Sunday morning when we sat with friends and acquaintances over food, and learned something.


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