In the back room of Tacoma’s 7 Seas Brewery, the scene was one straight out of a college classroom, with all eyes fixed on a screen full of photos and infographics. As the four speakers took the stage in turn, a story of American life unfolded, focused on that most important of institutions: libraries.

Grit City Think & Drink

Emily Thuma, Associate Professor of Politics and Law at the University of Washington-Tacoma, discussed the cycles of repression and representation for LGBTQ communities, while Johanna Jacobsen Kiciman, one of the school’s librarians, discussed the increased pressures that librarians face in an era of social turmoil.

Annie Downey, Associate Dean of University Libraries, delved into the long history of the industry as a haven for marginalized individuals, while Alaina Bull, another of the school’s librarians, dove into some of the work specific to UWT’s program, including a reading club of banned books.

Grit City Think & Drink Tacoma
Each presentation includes visual aids to enhance the topic – in this case, a slide with suggested ways to support public libraries. Photo credit: Kiernyn Orne-Adams

The overarching theme of the talk was “Queer in the Stacks: Resisting the Rise of LGBTQ Book Bans and Attacks on Libraries,” and its multi-person, interdisciplinary approach is part of what makes Grit City Think & Drink such a unique – and beloved – set of events.

Offering a night out with an intellectual twist, the speaker series brings some of the best minds in town to the Tacoma location of the brewery on the second Tuesday of each month. Professors, activists, and public intellectuals from every discipline under the sun share their work with a wider audience in an informal setting.

Approachable Learning Outside of the Classroom

The series comes courtesy of UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, which is the largest branch of UWT – and one of the most diverse. With over 1,100 students covering 18 different disciplines, it focuses on “the comparative study of peoples, groups, societies, cultures, and environments within the United States and selected regions of the world,” per the school’s website. And this diversity has created the perfect breeding ground for unique opportunities like Think & Drink.

Dr. Jim Gawel, Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Engineering at the school, hosts and organizes the sessions. He started the program seven years ago as a way to bring academics together and give them a chance to share their work outside of the classroom. He explained that it also gives the presenters an opportunity to hone their public speaking skills, taking their rarefied knowledge and reshaping it into a new format for a general audience.

The series format is fairly straightforward: the speaker (or speakers) spend the first half discussing their topic. Then Gawel briefly retakes the stage to raffle off merchandise celebrating the event (hats, in this case) before yielding the floor to the panelists again for a Q&A session.

From the start, Gawel wanted the series to be as diverse as the school, and each month brings a fresh batch of food for thought. As you sip your beer, you might be swept up in the economics of the Guaranteed Income movement or take a whirlwind tour of the past 500 years of history. One month may bring you an in-depth look at the political nuances of online dating; the next, the surprisingly rich story of Smokey Bear. And, of course, as Gawel points out, “Those different circles draw in different people,” with the steady regulars elbow to elbow with newcomers interested in the month’s particular topic. Oftentimes, those audiences will keep returning for new presentations, drawn in by this laidback form of learning.

Grit City Think & Drink Tacoma
Johanna Jacobsen Kiciman (L) and Associate Dean of University Libraries Annie Downey (R) take questions from the audience. Photo credit: Kiernyn Orne-Adams

It also all ties back to the school, which has a unique position in town. As Gawel points out, the UWT campus is quite literally in the middle of the city; as such, he argues, “we should not be walled off” from the surrounding community, instead taking advantage of the location to get more involved in local life than many similar institutions.

It’s also a chance to help demystify the academic world. As Gawel explained, “People start to understand what it is we do,” and that the series “makes it more approachable.” As listeners learn and connect, they also get a sense of the larger role that the school plays in the community, and of course, there’s always more to learn – perhaps with a frosty pint in hand.

The next talk will be held on June 11, titled “Green Cities: Busting the Myth,” and will be presented by Civil Engineering Ph.D Nara Almeida. Like all of the talks, it will take place at the Tacoma branch of 7 Seas Brewery and Taproom, located at 2101 Jefferson Avenue.

The series will then go on hiatus until October, but in the meantime, you can view a wide range of previous talks and stay up-to-date here.