An underlying current of social justice and activism runs through the Tuesday night gatherings at the Mad Hatter’s Tea and Coffee House on West 7th in St. Paul. A core group comes weekly for the Pax Conversational Salons organized by Patty Guerrero. Attendance mirrors that of any local peace vigil—more than half are women and the majority are 50 and up. During introductions at a recent salon, a 60-ish man said he attended every week, and then promptly fell into a nap. But the variety of topics— ranging from the arts, to self discovery to international solidarity efforts—continually draw in new people who discover the salon through calendar listings in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Highland Villager, Twin Cities Daily Planet, local event list serves, and word-of-mouth.
Mad Hatter’s Tea & Coffee House
943 W 7th Street
To add yourself to the mailing list and receive announcements of future topics visit the web site. If you have an idea for a topic, contact Guererro at email@example.com.
Guerrero launched the salons in 2002. Since then, Twin Cities residents have assembled weekly to discuss—over tea and cake—global humanitarian crises, peace efforts, and poetry. Sometimes they’ll watch a video about a social justice issue. The energetic and gregarious Guerrero has never panicked over finding speakers.
“I never seem to lack for someone to be there each week,” says Guerrero, with a twinkle in her eye. “I pick people up that sound interesting.” She once introduced a speaker as someone whom she “picked up at a movie.” The two women fell into a discussion in the parking lot after seeing a movie and, discovering the other movie-goer’s unique knowledge about communicating with dementia patients, Guererro invited her to speak at the salon.
The salons are held in a small art gallery adjacent to Mad Hatters Tea & Coffee House on West 7th, both owned by St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune, who donates the space. Sipping tea or espresso amidst an eclectic assortment of paintings, sculptures and photographs by local artists, creates an open and informal environment for the hour and a half discussion.
“It’s a real lifesaver for people to be able to get their feelings off their chest,” said Guerrero. She thinks ideological division creates a sense of isolation for some people and that’s why they come to the salons.
Guerrero’s interest was piqued by an article in the Utne Reader that described the history of salons, which are believed to have begun as an intimate alternative space in early 1600s France. The article encouraged readers to start their own. After doing some research, Guerrero decided to introduce a salon in St. Paul.
The salons have evolved into three basic formats. Most are led by an expert or community activist who has knowledge or skills to share. One evening a month is devoted to poetry. Carol Connelly, St. Paul’s poet laureate, has read there, as well as other local poets. Poetry fans also come to read the works of their favorite poets. Readings of works by Leonard Cohen and U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic have been popular, Guerrero said. Occasionally there is “open dialogue” for discussion of current events, often accompanied by a video.
Polly Mann, a Minneapolis writer, peace activist and co-founder of Women Against Military Madness, has had informal readings of her plays at the salon. Chingwell Mutombu, the daughter of Congolese parents, recently described a microfinance organization she founded to help people in the Democratic Republic of Congo escape poverty, and two young Minnesota women, Cody Oesterreich and Carrie Stangel, gave a PowerPoint presentation and talked about their year as human rights observers in Guatemala, as part of the group Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).
Pam and Dave Nelson of Shoreview came one recent evening to speak about their work called Integrated Life Wellness & Coaching and share tools and techniques they’ve developed for finding peace within. Pam is a life coach and Dave teaches the practice of “grounding” — connecting one’s energy with the earth’s energy. They shared some techniques for finding inner peace and balance while living in times of deep division. Because the salons invite participation from all members (just listening is ok, too) some members of the group described how the differing political ideologies cause discord among co-workers and family members. During the group discussion, a petite woman in her early 50s, a first-timer, talked the group through a complicated breathing exercise that she learned for reducing anxiety and anger.
Bringing people together seems to be a calling for Guerrero. In the 1980s, she worked for the St. Paul Information and Complaints office while George Latimer was mayor and later as a librarian-specialist at the St Paul Public Library. As a city employee she made a successful application for funding through the National Center for Humanities to implement an intergenerational program. The program brought retired seniors and students together at three St. Paul high schools. She ran the program for four years until the funding ended. The running included picking up and transporting some of the seniors to the schools. She thought it was important for these two groups to improve their understanding of the other generation and share skills.
Later, with support from the St. Paul Public Library, she created a book club for seniors designed to stimulate and involve them in discussion. She volunteered as a reader for more than four years until that program, too, was discontinued.
The salons, Guerrero’s latest project, are now in their sixth year. After 230 programs, give or take a few, the salons show no signs of going away. They continue to draw anywhere from six to 20 or more, depending on the topic, the weather and what else is going on.
Come Tuesdays, there are always people gathering for a good conversation. The salons charge no fee but a small donation is appreciated to cover hosting costs. Guerrero also asked salon fans to help chip in for the purchase of a laptop projector.