Mark Hopkins wants to get to know you

A social experiment in Calgary is building bridges between disparate social groups

Photograph by Todd Korol

The results of Mark Hopkins’s social experiment are posted on his wall—a real wall, the one by his front door. Hundreds of coloured name tags are plastered there, just a fraction of the 1,600 strangers he has invited to his Calgary apartment over the last four years for company, conversation, and philosophical duels. Among the guests were Naheed Nenshi, before he was mayor, and Alison Redford, before she was premier.

Tall, gangly, ruddy-cheeked and boyish, the former bashful wallflower has bloomed into social impresario. “In elementary school, I was the kid you’d see sitting alone on the step, reading a book, eating his apple,” says Hopkins, whose father was a database consultant and his mother a marine biologist. Then, in Grade 12, “a switch flipped” and the extrovert emerged.

Every second Sunday since 2008, Hopkins has hosted what he calls a “We should know each other” party. Using an email list, a Facebook page and his website, he invites anyone and everyone to his unprepossessing apartment in a brick walk-up across from Calgary’s glass-and-steel downtown.

One recent Sunday, 15 people filled the worn sofas and chairs, chatter criss-crossing the room like verbal confetti. There was talk of the presidential debates on one couch. Problems with psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders on the other. There’s never a theme, and viewpoints clash. “I personally get excited when voices get raised a little bit. But nothing has ever gotten out of hand.”

Hopkins’s goal is to chip away at the socio-economic, ethnic, occupational and ideological barriers that define our social zones.

“We all exist in these silos that consist of our school friends, family, industry friends, peer groups. That kind of thing can be limiting,” says Hopkins, co-artistic director of Swallow-a-Bicycle, a fringe-theatre company known for staging plays in offbeat locations. He’s also associate producer for the One Yellow Rabbit performance theatre.

Realizing he was too cloistered in the theatrical crowd, Hopkins decided to construct a societal bridge in Calgary, one that would bring plumber together with politician, actor with accountant.

“I didn’t realize that I had preconceptions about politicians or police officers until I started meeting them. Lawyers, too. Coming from an arts background, I certainly had perceptions about them that were largely incorrect.”

To recognize his leadership and cultural contribution to the city, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Centre-North) nominated Hopkins for a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, which was awarded in October. An alumnus of the “We should know each other” parties, Rempel was always welcomed, even though many of the guests were left-leaning.

“Part of that is Mark. He’s set a tone of, ‘We are going to build community.’ But just because I’m a conservative politician doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of friends in the arts community,” says the MP, a pianist who once considered a career in music.

Hopkins often refers to a book by American political scientist Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, where the author describes two kinds of social capital. Bonding capital occurs when you socialize with people who are like you in age, ethnicity, economic status, and religion. Bridging capital happens when you befriend people unlike you. Without bridging capital, Putnam suggests civic tension grows and quality of life declines.

Karen Ross, 29, moved last September from Vancouver to work on her Ph.D. in counselling psychology at the University of Calgary. She met Hopkins at a local pub and has attended two parties. “You kind of have to go in with no expectations about whether you’ll like people, or whether they’ll be intriguing or superficial or crazy,” she says. “You get a chance to see how you navigate this series of ambiguous social interactions where you aren’t primed with much information about the person you’re talking to.” Sometimes, she adds, “you have really, really lovely and resonant conversations.”

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