Posted on March 22, 2017

‘Paris in Georgia:’ Political Salons Spring Up Across US in Push Against Trump

Amber Jamieson, The Guardian, March 18, 2017

In the suburbs of Minneapolis–St Paul, friends gather around a backyard campfire to discuss how to turn their Donald Trump anger into action.

In San Francisco, California, an all-female crew eats Middle Eastern food and reads the constitution.

In Decatur, Georgia, a silver bell gets rung if anyone in the group of mainly suburban moms starts speaking off-topic during their monthly get-togethers.

Political “salons” are popping up in living rooms, bars and backyards in response to the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Some have wine; some have a set agenda; all are scheming how to fight against this presidency.

Salons first gained fame in France during the Enlightenment, with citizens gathering to engage in political conversations and arguments; they acted as a place to plan revolution and discuss philosophy. The concept has continued ever since, with the author Gertrude Stein and the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright both known to have hosted them.

“I used the term salon to evoke old gatherings of artists and intellectuals in a hostess’s home,” said Mary Huber, founder of the Progressive Salon of Decatur. “Yep, Paris in the 1920s, recreated here in Decatur, Georgia,” she quipped.

The 2017 salon is more often marked by groups of friends and neighbors organizing specific political actions, from raising money to educating each other about the refugee ban, while hanging out and making new friendships.

“I used to meet friends at the gym; now I meet them in brainstorming sessions,” said Huber.

At 7pm on a Sunday night once a month, a crowd of about 20 people pile into the semi-retired attorney’s lounge room, with the dining chairs set up around the couches in a semi-circle.

“We are not here to sit around around and complain,” explained Huber. The group is a mixture of people from the middle-class neighborhood of Chelsea Heights, including folk musicians, stay-at-home moms, lawyers and a former nun.

They are focused on three key topics: the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the April special election for the sixth congressional district in Georgia (vacant after Tom Price became head of health and human Services in the Trump administration), and the 2018 midterm elections (the governor of Georgia is up for re-election).

At their last meeting, a woman gave a presentation on refugee work in the area. Another presented on training she’d received about the ACA, popularly known as Obamacare. Two members had attended town hall meetings and met with local senators’ staffers.

Their official group mascot is the mosquito. “We need to be like mosquitoes, and literally bug the hell out of them,” said Huber.

It’s enormous fun, says Huber, although it’s not a party. “I am not letting people sit around and get buzzed – they will not get anything done,” she said.

“Maybe I should add snacks,” she laughed.

In a forested backyard in the Minneapolis–St Paul suburbs, folks gather around a literal campfire to chat about their election concerns.

“Getting around a fire pit like humans have done for thousands of years, we’re able to have a discussion about politics in a way that is civil, personal, and such a relief,” said Brad Canham, creator of the Fire Pit Salon.

Canham started the Fire Pit Salons in early 2016, after the election came up during a local dinner party and the host quickly changed the topic because she feared it was too divisive. So Canham started inviting friends around specifically to discuss what was going on.

“It’s kind of a variation on the normal ‘parents with kids getting together’,” said Canham. “Bring over some food and a bottle of wine … and we go out and we talk about politics.”

There’s a secret Facebook group, common among neighborhood salons for planning, but most discussion happens around the fire. The 52-year-old management consultant thinks the presence of flames makes it easier for people to chat.

“The fire pit has become a fundamental gathering place where people feel safe to talk about this kind of stuff,” he said.

Canham even developed the “Fire Pit Method”, which includes a downloadable PDF, to help people discuss their feelings, how they fit into the world and how they can take action.

At the most recent meeting, last week, the big topic was fatigue – of media and politics, said Canham. Someone offered up the metaphor for giving birth as a suitable philosophical idea for the moment.

Right now, Canham says, we’re in the intensely emotional period of labor when everything slows down and people lose hope.

“Sometimes you need to breathe,” said Canham. “You can’t just push all the time, that isn’t the way it works.” He said he was using that analogy to inspire him until his next big salon in May.

While marching in the San Francisco Women’s March in January, Palak Sheth and her friend Raveena Rihal decided to “do something that sustains the energy and passion feeling today”, said Sheth.

So they created PMS: Post March Salon. An all-female group, they will meet once a month (yes, the name works on many levels), on the date of either the inauguration or the women’s march.

“Just like the salons of the 18th century, where intellectuals and artists gathered to socialize and increase their knowledge through conversation, our goal is to connect, organize, converse and, most importantly, act,” they wrote in an email inviting their friends to the first event.

During the salons, they all achieve one action together, and then everyone has to do something during the month, such as reading the constitution or making a phone call to a representative.

“I’m trying to keep the burden low. I want to engage the folks who’ve done more in the last month than the last 30 years,” said Sheth, who is 36 and a managing director in the San Francisco City attorney’s office.

For the first PMS event, she cooked up a Middle Eastern feast of tagine, rice pilaf, tzatziki and halloumi salad, specifically chosen to draw attention to the Trump administration’s travel ban, and served it in her Lower Haights home. “It was either going to be Mexican food or Middle Eastern food,” she said.

As an ice breaker, they introduced themselves by also saying a relevant word about how they were feeling politically using the first letter of their name – and they’ve taken to use them as nicknames in emails. Palak is Persist, Raveena is Resistance, Maureen is Motivation.

“I believe in the need for it to be friendly and social,” said Sheth. Chat about jobs and relationships and workouts help because “all of those things are really what are going to build the foundation of why you want to come back”.

The Seattle Resistance Salon was created partly to find others to commiserate with.

“People feel scared and crazy and isolated right now, and that’s exactly how the bastards want us. Salons promote culture and civilization merely by bringing people with a common purpose together in a room,” said the group’s founder, David Stoesz, a 49-year-old writer.

About 10-15 people get together for drinks in a local bar in downtown Seattle or in Stoesz’s home every two weeks.

At the first event, in December, Stoesz sat alone at the bar and no one turned up. The next week, three people showed, and gradually more and more started coming along. Now the group of 40-50 people are a “social club that’s engaged in shared political action”.

They’ve attended the Women’s March, anti-travel ban protests and a rally in support of a local “Dreamer” immigrant who was arrested, and are focusing on fundraising to support Democrats in coming special elections.

Part of the salons is “given over to ranting and raving. It has no real purpose but to make people feel better,” joked Stoesz.

When asked what inspired him to start his own salon, Stoesz talks about his 17-year-old daughter and her group of smart, politically engaged friends, many of whom are non-white or gender non-conforming. The day after the election, he felt a deep sense of shame reading their scared Facebook posts about not feeling like they belonged in the United States.

“We adults fucked this up. We let this happen,” he said, choking up. “I wrote back to them: ‘You do belong here. I’m sorry for my role as an adult and I’m going to do everything I can to fight this.’ And I’m trying.”