One of the most common pieces of advice students get regarding their time in college is that it’s important to be in the present – to enjoy the moment.
But what if being in the present includes thinking about the future?
At UChicago, the answer to that question can be found at Future Café, a student-organized discussion series that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to collectively imagine utopian possibilities, as well as long-term futures.
The Future Café series is sponsored by the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT), founded in 2004 by seven faculty members from the Social Sciences and Humanities divisions. The collective aims to create an interdisciplinary community of thought centered around present-day issues.
Shannon Dawdy, professor of anthropology and social sciences in the College, created the series as a parallel project alongside her collaborative discussion and workshop series with the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture Bill Brown, called “Materializing the Future.”
After noticing that public discourse on political events and the future had become markedly negative, Dawdy knew something had to change.
“The intellectual part of me realized that futurist thinking had really fallen by the wayside, and there were very few people who would talk about the future or about utopian possibilities in anything but actually a very cynical way,” she said. “‘Oh, utopias never work’, or ‘good plans never pan out’ ... there was just this real sense of fatalism of our times.”
In her pursuit to create a space for positive discourse about the future, Dawdy organized the series and came up with an apt name: Future Café.
Dawdy modeled Future Café after 3CT’s successful Book Salon series, which celebrates authors whose books relate to the center’s mission: critical discussions and reimaginings of social, political, and cultural processes. Dawdy also borrowed from the global Death Café movement, which consists of group-directed discussions of death with no agenda, objectives, or themes.
“[These discussion series] are all in salon settings, where it's really intellectual engagement around some shared interest and issues, but without it being about a competition, without it being about grades – it’s just for the love of exchange and just to be pure intellectuals,” Dawdy said.
Anna Searle Jones, associate director of 3CT, describes Future Café and the student-driven discussions within it as a space for speculation and creative thinking. Past sessions have included discussions on the future of Afrofuturism, transportation, climate change and labor. The most recent session, which took place in late Febuary, was titled “The Future of Home.”
In each session, student coordinators help facilitate conversations and aim to make each session welcoming, steering the group clear of preconceived notions about the topic being discussed.
“There's a delicate balancing act between providing your own opinion and keeping the space open, but I think overall, it's just been such a pleasure seeing how people take the conversations,” said Navid Mazidabadifarahani, a third-year student studying history and anthropology and one of Future Café’s student coordinators this year.
As an astrophysics double major, student coordinator Audrey Scott went into her first Future Café session – titled “The Future of Space” – expecting to talk about outer space, but she was in for something different.
“It was more about space as sort of a conception of daily life – as in the matter around you – and taking and making space in that context,” she said.“I did not get to talk about outer space that day, but I did get to have really fantastic conversations and set myself up to be a part of a community that I would really cherish."
Scott said she enjoys the unpredictability and diversity of free-flowing conversations that take place at Future Café.
“I would say that it's a very low barrier to entry … it’s a chance to learn from people who have different backgrounds, but also a way that you don't have to deal with some of the intellectual pretension that you might have in some spaces,” Scott said. “If you have a thought about the idea or topic presented, go for it. People aren't going to judge you or tell you that you're wrong … we're able to have a civil, interesting, and multifaceted discussion without it being of any true consequence, and I really like that.”
Many Future Café sessions and the ideas they generated became the basis for Post-X, an annual zine, a self-published, non-commercial print work, that was originally launched as a way to collaborate remotely during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. 3CT recently launched a call for submissions during winter quarter, and will be accepting them through April 1.
The most recent issue, “ANEMOIA," was centered around the term of the same name, describing nostalgia for a time one has never known or fully experienced. Jones said the zine remains open to creative contributions (art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction).
Above all, Future Café encourages students to think about the future in ways that they may not have done so before, and to do so with a sense of hope and optimism.
“It's very important for us to keep that grounded connection and to keep looking forwards,” Scott said. “Sometimes that looking forwards is beautiful and sometimes it's not – and it's important for us to reckon with ourselves and what we see, because if what we see is something that we can change and that would be good to change, then it's good to have that as part of our own personal ethos that we carry throughout our lives.”