Civic Café and Food for Thought—new programs for the fall 2022 semester—give WashU students a regular and unintimidating forum to drop in, discuss community and civic issues with experts, and weigh in during open conversation. Both weekly conversations are served over food from locally owned eateries.
Food for Thought is a pop-up event on Tuesdays when classes are in session, held outside at different parts of campus—particularly where students interested in a particular topic might be found. But everyone from the WashU community is invited to drop in and chat about the day’s theme—which so far have included mobility and access; leaving a legacy; building community; turning out the vote; and language, accents, and perceptions. Each week, anywhere from a dozen to more than 40 people stop by.
“It’s been great to see the different students and professors who show up,” said Eric Jones, Engage Democracy Fellow at the Gephardt Institute who organizes each week’s Food for Thought. “To see their eyes light up when they realize we’re talking about something they’re passionate about—and of course to grab a snack—has been a really heartwarming part of my work at Gephardt.”
Food for Thought events are typically co-hosted with a campus partner, and Jones has so far been joined by the Office of Sustainability, Residential Life, WashU Votes, the Office for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Life, and the Office for International Students and Scholars.
“Our campus partners have really helped Food for Thought become what it is,” Jones said. “Not only are they content experts – they are tapped into the communities that want to discuss these topics, and they rally students to join us.”
Lindsay Owens, Graduate Assistant for Student Civic Learning at the Gephardt Institute, manages Civic Café every Wednesday. It’s a conversation on a different topic each week, over dinner from a locally-owned restaurant.
“Planning out each Civic Café event has really helped me learn more things about the St. Louis region and some of the work that nonprofit organizations and individuals are doing in the area,” said Owens.
Civic Café is held at Stix House and invites more in-depth discussion of local and societal issues. Topics have included “Music and Social Change,” “Navigating the Media Landscape + Identifying Disinformation,” and “Getting the Political System We Want.”
And special Civic Café events offer more information and context on the topic of the week. “Democracy Dinners” this semester helped guests process the Midterm Elections and learn about “Federal Holidays and the National Story.”
Most recently, David Dwight IV ’15 led a Civic Journey Spotlight, in which he shared his path from a WashU student protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. to leading the nonprofit organization—Forward Through Ferguson—charged with implementing the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission Report.
“One of the most inspiring moments from Civic Café was when we had [Dwight] to speak about his civic journey,” Owens said. “It was an honor to hear about what brought him to the work he does now, and his perspective on working towards social change at WashU.”
Owens is happy with the great turnout so far, and she is excited to continue building Civic Café in the spring semester with the feedback she’s received from guests.
“We hope that we can work to create events around themes that students have expressed interest in this semester,” she said.