2021 Food for Thought Conversation Hosts, Topics and Bios


Wednesday Night Cocktail Host 


Trevan Sparboe and Bryan Taylor, owners of The Blind Bison 

Blind Bison is a Progressive Cocktail Bar that is open on specified dates and times at specified locations. They host themed cocktail events with a collection of inspired drinks from whatever the theme may be.

Want to know more? Visit www.BlindBisonMT.com or follow them on Facebook.



Wednesday Night Conversation Hosts & Topics

#01 - Ignacio Barron-Viela, symphony director

Music, magic, community: Why is music important?

Music touches the deepest human emotions. But what role does live musical performance play in community and, in particular, Billings? Is music a necessity or a luxury? How has the pandemic impacted art and music organizations? What is the outlook for the symphony orchestras after COVID-19?

Bio: Ignacio is executive direcor of the Billings Symphony & Chorale


#02 - John Carlson, wildlife biologist
Are we loving Montana to death?

How does our own carbon footprint impact Montana's most precious attribute, our outdoors? How is climate change affecting the fish, wildflife, forests and plains in our backyard?

Bio: John, a lifelong Montanan, is branch chief for resources and science with the Montana/Dakotas Bureau of Land Management.


#03 - Jon Darby, Senior U.S. Intelligence Official
Will America awaken to the threat of cyber hackers?

Who is responsible for cybersecurity and protecting our complex information networks - Government? Industry? Average citizens? With infiltration by Chinese, Russian and North Korean hackers, and ransomware attacks, our data - personal, industrial and governmental - have never been more at risk. How do we strengthen our defenses?

Bio: Jon, a graduate of Billings Senior High School, is Director of Operations for the National Security Agency.  He has served in the U.S. intelligence community for over 37 years.


#04 - Darrell Ehrlick, journalist
Where will you get your news?

You've heard that the news industry is dying, right? That's only true if you don't count a wave of new journalistic endeavors. What are the novel nonprofit experiments in the news media, including our own state? How have misinformation, disinformation, and social media changed the ways we produce and consume the news - and understand our world?

Bio: Darrell is editor on the online Daily Montanan. He is formerly editor of the Billings Gazette and several other papers owned by Lee Enterprises.



#05 - Stefani Hicswa, PhD, college chancellor
Would you say that to my face?

Has our ability to exchange thoughts and ideas changed? How do we keep youths, elders, and community socially engaged? In the second year of the COVID-19 emergency, how do we maintain a healthy social environment? And why do people write such mean things?

Bio: Stefani is chancellor of MSU Billings and has over 15 years experience as a college president. 



#06 - Danell Jones, PhD, author and professor
Why are we wild for all things British?

Well, it's not the food. So is it the delicious accent that's irresistible? Or do we have some deep connection with the country we separated from all those years ago? Or is it that British movies and television reveals a world that looks more beautiful, elegant, and sophisticated than our own? Why do YOU love things British - whether it's the Beatles, Downton Abbey, PG Tips, digestive biscuits, Wuthering Heights, James Bond, or Mr. Bean?

Bio: Danell is an English professor at MSU Billings, author, and self-identified Anglophile.



#07 - Jim Messina, political consultant
What is the future of our politics?

Are there opportunities for breaking away from our fractured political climate? What can we foresee for the elections in 2022, and after? Is the two-party system dead? What are the bigger political trends emerging in the U.S. and internationally?

Bio: Jim is former chief of staff for Senator Max Baucus and past White House deputy chief of staff for operations under President Obama. He is CEO of The Messina Group.



#08 - Sarah Moyer, food business owner
Is is possbile to "eat local" in Billings?

During the pandemic, it is evident that food needs can outpace resouces. Is it time to consider a new model? Is it possible to truly eat local in Billings? Does Montana offer a full enough bounty to feed all of us? What are the economic and environmental impacts of local agricultural systems? Is Montana's food basket complete?

Bio: Sarah is the owner of Project Lunch



#09 - Ralph Spence, company president
Can we enjoy affordable, sustainable energy - and keep Montana beautiful?

Montana is a significant supplier of energy to the nation, producing both traditional fossil fuels as well as alternatives like hydro, wind and solar. How do we find a balance among energy consumption, cost and climate change impact? Is it possible to heat our homes during a frigid winter without hurting our environment?

Bio: Ralph owns several businesses and is past president of the Billings Community Foundation.



                                  #10 - Marie Taylor, artist
Can art heal the soul?

We all are searching for a calming influence on the mind and for many, this serenity is found in art. What is "art" and why does it have such power to heal? Is art a creation of beauty or a revelation of hidden truth? How does art communicate with words that cannot be spoken? What makes art timeless and provide a connection with others?

Bio: Marie is a Billings native and well-known area artist with a professional background in healthcare. A life changing event moved her to follow her passion of art and her work now honors her late son. Large oil paintings and encaustic work are her most common forms. Marie enjoys being a lifelong learner and taking classes in many mediums. She is the owner of MTaylorStudio.com and has recently opened a retail space in Roots Garden Center.





Thursday Night Cocktail Host


Trevan Sparboe and Bryan Taylor, owners of The Blind Bison 

Blind Bison is a Progressive Cocktail Bar that is open on specified dates and times at specified locations. They host themed cocktail events with a collection of inspired drinks from whatever the theme may be.

Want to know more? Visit www.BlindBisonMT.com or follow them on Facebook.



Thursday Night Conversation Hosts & Topics

                                       #11 - John Cech, PhD, college president
What is higher education for? Why does it matter? And who pays?

How do we prepare our youth for productive lives in a future we can scarcely imagine? Higher education across America is facing critical challenges including demographic shifts, technological revolution, economic disruption, and a struggle to stay relevant. COVID-19 has brought these issues into relief and profoundly affected campus life. And not least important, how do students and their parents keep up with the costs? 

Bio: John has served as President of Carroll College in Helena since June of 2018. He previously served as Deputy Commissioner for Academics, Research and Student Affairs for the Montana University System from 2010 through May of 2018. Dr. Cech also served as Dean of the Montana State University Billings College of Technology from 2002 through 2010 and was the dean of Community Services, Continuing Education, and Summer Sessions for Rocky Mountain College from 1989 through May 2002. John's tenure in higher education includes many experiences addressing challenges and opportunities associated with funding, recruitment, and student success. Additionally, he has also served as a "Senior                                                     Fellow" for  Complete College America. 


#12 - Bill Coffee, banker
Why do we need a Montana voice on the Federal Reserve?

What are the economic issues that impact Montana, such as tribal policies or population swings? How does national monetary policy affect us all? Join this timely discussion and hear an insider's view of the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve.

Bio: Bill, CEO of Stockman Bank, serves on the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, Helena Branch Board of Directors


#13 - Keith Edgerton, PhD, history professor
Who were the misfits and scoundrels in Montana history, and why do they matter?

How does one become a famous (or infamous) jerk in Montana? As history reveals, it's easier than you might think! And why is it our state has had to endure more than our fair share of misfits in positions of power? (Name your own favorites!)

Bio: Keith is chair of the history department at MSU Billings




#14 - Reid Ferring, PhD, archaeology professor
What can digging reveal about our human past, and future?

How does archaeology help us understand today's human events, and tomorrow's? Can we make better decisions on agriculture, health, or politics from the study of our ancestors? What does the evidence of the past show us about long-term changes in human behavor and culture?

Bio: Reid is professor emeritus at the University of North Texas.




#15 - Tami Haaland, English professor and poet
What is the power of poetry? 

Poetry, like storytelling, has an ancient history and spans many traditions across cultures. It is said that poetry is looking into a mirror but what does that mirror reveal? Why do we turn to poetry during times when we can't find the words? What makes a poem, and how do we distinguish poetry from prose?

Bio: Tami, a former Montana Poet Laureate, is a professor of English and creative writing at MSU Billings and the author of several books of poetry.


                                       #16 - Ed Kemmick, writer
We live in the biggest city in the state: Why don't we act like it?

Does Billings suffer from an inferiority complex? Why do people from Billings so often compare their city unfavorably with other cities in the region, and with the likes of Missoula and Bozeman? Wouldn't it be more rewarding to recognize Billings for all the things it does right, and for remaining, in many ways, the most "Montanan" of the state's larger cities?

Bio: Ed is a former reporter and editor whose career included a 25-year stint at the Billings Gazette and four-plus years as publisher of  Last Best News, an online newspaper based in Billings. Ed is writing a new column in the Billings Times.


#17 - Larry Martin and Jim Gransbery, attorney and journalist
Will democracy survive us?

America faces a legitimacy crisis, at home and worldwide. Where did it originate, and where do we go from here? Join Billings' own "Shields and Brooks" in a lively debate on whether our democracy will withstand a storming of the Capitol, the splintering of the electorate, denial of election results, governmental gridlock and the rise of populism. Come, pick a side, pro or con, and speak up.

Bio: Larry is an attorney with Felt Martin and Jim is a retired journalist with the Billings Gazette.


#18 - Martha Sheehy, attorney
... And whose business is that?

The Montana Constitution contains vigorous protections of both the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy. All public entities - from local ditch boards to the Montana Legislature - must weigh these two competing interests while doing their work. This delicate balance between individual privacy and public participation is conducted almost entirely by non-lawyers volunteering for public service and by public officials. How do we approach this balancing act?

Bio: Martha has practiced law for over 30 years. She has represented nearly every  newspaper in the state, seeking to enforce the public's right ot know.


#19 - Rick St. John, police chief
Is policing in Billings a tough job? Let's ask a cop!

Protecting the rights of all citizens while keeping a community safe from crime can be challenging even in the best of times. Today, race issues and street protest, legal firearms carry, underfunded mental health services, rampant drug use, problem videos on social media - all these affect community policing. How do police maintain safety and public order while respecting the mandated limits of their powers? Is this aim more attainable in Montana than elsewhere?

Bio: Rich is Billings Chief of Police. He joined the department in 1981.


#20 - Joanie Swords, baker and businesswoman
Are you ready for a hands-on baking experience?

Grab you apron and pull out your mixer, you are going to join Joanie in a virtual baking experience. Learn how Joanie makes one of the favorite desserts and share ideas about showing love through food. You will receive your ingredients list prior to the event so you can join Joanie in creating a delicious treat.

Bio: Joanie is the owner of Harper & Madison Patisserie.