For most Northwestern students, the Old Factory is a cozy, off-campus spot with the ability to make mountains of homework seem manageable through warm coffee and friendly fellowship. Owner Steve Mahr, however, hopes that The Old Factory can offer a different kind of experience for community members.
Last year was the first time Old Factory hosted the Community Conversation series, focusing on racial tension in the United States. Following the instances of police brutality, rioting and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the conversations addressed a growing anxiety about the state of race relations in the country.
“The hope and goal of the community conversations was to begin the process of hearing one another,” Mahr said. “Why is our relationship broken? How can I love you as my neighbor better? What do you need from this community to feel safe and welcomed. When we began asking these questions, tensions certainly began to rise, but honesty and vulnerability also gave birth to relationships.”
With this year’s series, Mahr hopes to achieve a similar outcome. Focusing on Islam and Muslims, the conversations this year deal with a similarly controversial and timely topic. The aim is to initiate a conversation that sets aside biases and creates a real understanding.
“Our hope is that by increasing knowledge we are able to decrease fear and increase the opportunities to develop real and meaningful relationships with our Muslim neighbors,” Mahr said.
Though these events are for the whole community, Northwestern students are still encouraged to attend. The conversations have helped Mahr understand the community he is in a little more, and he encourages NW students to think about doing the same.
“After I graduated I realized that I existed within the context of a specific community that I didn’t really know or understand,” Mahr said. “I believe these conversations give us all an opportunity to engage one another—even when we disagree—and lay the groundwork for finding common ground.”
Community Conversations take place every second and fourth Monday of the month at 8:00 p.m. Though every series looks different, this year’s will typically consist of a 30-minute talk by someone with an in-depth knowledge of Islam, followed by an hour of questions and discussion.
Dr. John Hubers, NW professor of religion, will play a main role in some of the discussions alongside some people of the Muslim faith. Mahr has high hopes for the series, though he recognizes the challenges.
“When we learn more, we are able to identify misleading or harmful comments and behaviors,” Mahr said. “Perhaps then we will step in and advocate for our neighbors and take action to expel those misconceptions and fears from our local community and the community at large. It’s a big task, but I think it has to start locally.”
The next Community Conversation will take place on Monday, September 27 at 8:00 p.m.