In the west end of Louisville, Ky., a teenage boy sees an older woman struggling to get her groceries into her house and offers to help. This simple act of neighborly kindness might never have occurred if not for the innovative program that brought them together, the Intergenerational Conversation Café at Louisville’s Plymouth Community Renewal Center.
“If it hadn’t been for the café, he wouldn’t have offered,” says Markham French, the center’s executive director, noting that the pair first met there. “And if he had offered, she probably would have said, ‘Heck, no!’ because she would have been afraid.”
Conversation cafés—groups that encourage structured person-to-person dialogue—are a growing international movement. The World Café Community is just one organization that promotes story sharing, and examples of cross-generational exchange abound. Last year, the German city of Schramberg hosted a weeklong discussion on climate change which brought together adults over 55 and children aged 6 to 13.
Plymouth’s effort came about when Shawn Gardner, director of partner organization 2 Not 1 Fatherhood and Families, approached French. Gardner was trained to conduct conversation cafés and needed a place to host one.
“I was excited, but I wanted to make it intergenerational,” says French. “Our goal is to serve the whole community.”
Established in 2007, the monthly cafés are held in late afternoon over a simple meal. They attract about a dozen people of varying ages, from teens to adults. The group plans each month’s topic in advance, and Gardner keeps the emphasis on give and take.
Everybody gets a turn to hold the “talking object,” a rubber ball or toy chicken, and speak during three rounds of exchange. They each share brief thoughts and experiences on the topic, then speak more in depth. Finally, everyone says what the café has meant to them.
“The format puts young people, adults and seniors on an equal frame,” says French. “Initially, we had adults coming in who wanted to give the kids a long lecture about what was wrong with them. We don’t preach right or wrong, we just explore where their beliefs are. If those beliefs need to move in any direction, hopefully in the conversational café they’ll get there.”
During a discussion about sagging pants, for instance, the adults in the group said they found the practice disrespectful. “The young people were able to clarify that it was simply a fad,” says French. “Some brought up the fact then when a lot of the adults were coming up, they did something controversial as well, such as wear hot pants. The group came to agree that each generation does something that rubs the previous generation the wrong way."
Other cafés have discussed domestic violence and the impact of absent fathers. French says the participants sometimes surprise themselves when they discover common experiences. They may realize that their responses to an issue have a lot to do with the eras in which they were raised.
“It’s a struggle to get young people, adults and seniors in one room, even within a family,” says French. “We’ve been able to do that with our conversational cafés.”
The community-building cafés are a complement to the center’s youth tutoring and empowerment programs and its outreach to neighbors in need in the Louisville area.