Amherst Connects: a community dialogue

Nick Grabbe

We will have an opportunity on June 6 to move beyond the contentious politics surrounding the end of Town Meeting and the establishment of a Town Council.

In an event called Amherst Connects, international peace activist Paula Green of Leverett will encourage residents with different opinions about the town’s new charter to talk with each other, with the goal of diminishing the polarization of the recent campaign. Co-facilitator Pat Romney of Amherst has led similar dialogues here before.

Amherst Connects will take place in the Jones Library’s Woodbury Room on Wednesday, June 6, starting at 7:15 p.m.  Participants should use the rear door.

Paula Green (shown in photo) has been in the news recently because of a dialogue between Leverett residents, who voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump, and a county in eastern Kentucky, which gave most of their votes to him. But she has been doing this work for many years, and in 1994 founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, with offices in Amherst. Her mission to bring warring tribes together has sent her to many countries with major conflicts, including Rwanda, Bosnia and the Mideast.

We envision a just and peaceful world in which difference is a source of creativity and strength,” Green has said. “The way people vote is a small measure of their humanity.”

If she can empower Trump and Clinton voters – not to mention Palestinians and Israelis – to develop mutual understanding, maybe she can, with Romney’s help, do the same for supporters and opponents of our new charter.

Amherst Connects is not about re-arguing the details of the charter or trying to convert people. It’s about seeking common ground, shattering stereotypes, and building a diverse and inclusive process to help Amherst move forward with a new form of government.

I was there when Romney led a dialogue in 2000 between supporters and opponents of the high school’s cancellation of a student production of “West Side Story” because of complaints that it would cause pain and anguish for Latinos. In March, when the charter campaign got intense, and my friendship with some opponents became strained, I asked her if she could help knit the fabric of the community together after the election.

Romney agreed to meet with me to plan an event, and asked me to invite someone on the other side. I chose Gerry Weiss, who served with me on the Charter Commission. The three of us met the day after the March 27 election. Romney then asked Green (both are psychologists) to join the effort.

On April 25, they led a discussion involving a diverse group of 14 residents selected by Weiss and me, evenly split between “yes” and “no” voters. It was a kind of rehearsal for the larger group meeting on June 6.

With help from the two facilitators, I expect that many charter supporters and opponents who attend will realize that they have common goals for Amherst, such as good schools, affordable housing, smart development, open space preservation, and improved infrastructure. Former charter foes can be allies on other issues; Gerry Weiss and I disagreed about the charter, but we both supported the plan for a new elementary school. I’d rather not see Amherst’s politics congeal into two rigid factions opposing each other on every issue.

What do I hope Amherst Connects can achieve?

Now that Amherst has had its last Annual Town Meeting, I hope that numerous members who loved the 80-year-old institution will redirect their civic-mindedness and feel comfortable running for the new Town Council. The town would be best served if voters have a wide choice of candidates in the primary Sept. 4 and the election Nov. 6. The deadline for submitting nomination papers is June 29; so far about 15 people (mostly charter supporters) have requested them so far.

I also hope that Amherst Connects can help change our town’s political culture. The charter debate, and the one over the school project, were often marred by vituperation, talking past one another, unsubstantiated charges and bitter retorts. “You didn’t listen” often replaced “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Despite the bad example provided by our national government, I hope we can rediscover the virtues of respectful disagreement, civility, and factual debate.

I encourage everyone who wants the best for our town to come to Amherst Connects on June 6. This will be a great opportunity to bring our community together.

 

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