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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meeting of the Minds at Westport Arts Center

Meeting of the Minds at 
Westport Arts Center
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Fairfield, CT – Ding! Ding! “Ok, let’s go people! Up! Up!” barked Peter Van Heerden, Westport Arts Center’s new executive director, clanging a pair of small gongs and herding groups of people from one table station to another Thursday evening.

It was all part of the fun in a program dubbed “Expert Minds”, sponsored by the Riverside Avenue-based Center in partnership with non-profit Green Village Initiative (GVI). The evening offered participants the opportunity to have intimate sit-downs with nine experts from diverse environmental fields and engage the experts in constructive conversation for 15 minutes at a time – speed-dating style. Seated four or five to a table, participants and experts exchanged questions, comments and information with the objective of expanding visionary thoughts and ideas.

Featured experts included John Fifield, an innovator in architectural design solutions; Julie Belaga, a legendary environmental policy reformer; Deepika Saksena, a zero waste manager; David Brown, public health toxicologist; Maxine Bleiweis, librarian; Watts Wacker, futurist; Bill Taibe, sustainable culinary master; Eden Werring, arts and education advocate; and John Solder, world champion robotics technician.

“We met with GVI, run by Dan Levinson, and they were interested in doing something community based,” said Heerden. “The program we came up with connects the general public with community leaders, so many pockets of information can be mutually exchanged. I suggested the speed-dating format after seeing it used successfully by organizations in my native South Africa. This is really speed dating for the mind.”

Each participant was issued a card listing four stations they would be visiting. Two fifteen minute rounds began the evening, followed by a short break, then two more fifteen minute rounds. Heerden told the group that their discussions should be collaborative, engaging and stimulating, with full participation from everyone.

As the first sessions commenced, ran their course and the groups broke for wine and finger foods, participant and Westporter Stacie Curran, who had just met with expert Saksena, said, “I learned tips like taking my own plate and cup to fast food places and deli’s to make less garbage, and how to compost. At the same time, I discovered that single stream recycling and anti-bacterial products may do more environmental harm than good. It was a tremendous 15 minutes. I learned a ton.”

Westporter Annie Harnick, 19, met with expert Werring. “She was very focused on philanthropy and getting the younger generation more involved,” Harnick said. “She wanted to know how to peak our interest. Our generation is really motivated to help, perhaps more than any other generation before us. It feels good to give.”

Robotics expert Solder, a mere 17, liked the premise of the evening. “It’s meant to stimulate minds,” he said. “It stimulates me just to present my ideas. There’s nothing better than this type of interaction.”

Jossie Fifield, expert John Fifield’s daughter, sat with Bill Taibe. “He explained that in order to make what he makes is costly. It made me wonder how that could be made more accessible for people of lesser means.”

GVI’s Levinson said he was impressed with this program and the new director’s energy. “Peter is barely 30 and has done a good job of getting up to speed,” he said. “He’s really going to take the Center in some exciting new directions.”

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