At least three charter opponents have told Nick Seamon, owner of the Black Sheep Deli, that they will not patronize his business because of his public support for a “yes” vote.
In my neighborhood alone, there are at least two households where couples are divided on the charter question. On one lawn on Cottage Street, there are both a “yes” and a “no” sign.
I myself have seen long-standing friendships strained because of differences over the charter.
I don’t know what the outcome of the vote will be as I write this today. But I do know that our beloved, polarized community will need some healing in order to move forward.
So I got in touch with Pat Romney, an Amherst resident who is a clinical and organizational psychologist with 30 years experience as a dialogue facilitator, professor at Hampshire and Mount Holyoke Colleges, and professional coach. She led a dialogue in Amherst in 2000, three months after the high school canceled a planned production of “West Side Story” because of complaints that it would cause pain and anguish to Latinos. The resulting controversy drew unfavorable national attention to Amherst.
Romney (shown in photo) has agreed to lead a public conversation involving both sides of the charter question. I will meet with her tomorrow (Wednesday) to discuss how this event might be structured. Appropriately, she asked me to invite a charter opponent to join in the planning. I asked Gerry Weiss, my fellow Charter Commission member, and he accepted my invitation.
I attended the dialogue that Romney led on “West Side Story,” and about 30 people participated. They first ate a meal together, and she asked them to talk about household chores and not “West Side Story.” Then they formed four groups of about eight people each to talk about their perspectives on the musical, the life experiences that shaped their opinions, and uncertainties they have about their own perspectives.
There were no changed minds afterwards, but participants said they gained a better understanding of the opinions of people with whom they disagree.
“I was dying to talk to someone ever since the first letter appeared in the paper,” said Jim Snedecor, who thought the high school made a mistake. “I enjoyed talking to real human beings on the other side instead of writing letters.”
Maggie Magrath, who also supported putting on the musical, said, “I am enlightened with the understanding that genuine people are genuinely offended by a production of this play.”
Romney said that people with entrenched opinions need to realize that people with different opinions are not stupid.
“The heart of this dialogue is to put each of us in contact with our own uncertainties, to open our minds to think, ‘Wow, how might someone else see this? Maybe I don’t have 100 percent of the truth.’”
I don’t know if a public dialogue between charter supporters and opponents will work. Many of my fellow charter supporters feel a lot of anger about what they feel are misrepresentations and misleading statements made by opponents.
I don’t know if the losing side will be willing to participate in a reconciliation exercise. I don’t know how long after the election we should wait before the event should be scheduled. I don’t know whether this is an appropriate forum to vent complaints about the campaign. I hope Romney can advise us.
But I have faith that some kind of reconciliation would be beneficial to our community, whether we prepare for elections of the new Town Council or whether we will continue to have Town Meeting.