By Amy Chapman
What makes a community successful? How do we define diversity, and how is it vital to the health of a society?
How do economic development and land conservation go hand in hand? Are there ways to get beyond community members’ ideological differences to forge empathy and connection?
Representatives of more than two dozen of the organizations that make up the Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative met recently to discuss the strategies that shape successful communities, and how to implement those strategies through their work.
BANC’s member organizations represent diverse aspects of the community and focus on a variety of initiatives related to education, the environment, economic development, culture, recreation, and health and wellness.
BANC supports their efforts by providing opportunities for collaboration that enhance the ability of individual organizations to garner funding and implement programs.
Peter Forbes was the facilitator for a day-long retreat sponsored by BANC and held at Mahoosuc Mountain Lodge in Newry. A consultant who advocates for the relationship between people and place, Forbes has worked all over the world, including in Nepal, Central America, Hawaii, New York City, and the American West.
He has been a photographer, a political consultant, and a conservationist, but said he considers himself first and foremost a farmer, raising Icelandic sheep and organic berries on his family farm in Vermont’s Mad River Valley.
Learning to listen
Forbes told the group that even when people appear to hold viewpoints that are diametrically opposed, there are always opportunities to find common ground. The first step, he said, is learning to listen.
Participants practiced listening by teaming up with someone they did not know well and briefly sharing their life stories. Then, based on what they had heard, they reflected back their perceptions of the other’s strengths and what inspired them.
Many in the group were surprised at how much they were able to learn about another person in just a few minutes.
“We interact every day in so many superficial ways, but this got down to the quick,” said Marcel Polak, who represented the SAD 44 School Board and the Maine Association of Conservation Commissions.
Katey Branch of the Alan Day Community Garden agreed. “Being with someone who is listening closely gives us space to decide how intimate to be, what details to share,” she said.
“Listening really is the better half of speaking,” said Forbes. “To listen, to really hear the other person, and what they care about, allows us to be open to a different point of view.”
He acknowledged that this has become more difficult in recent years. “It is getting harder and harder to talk to each other. It’s hard to have a conversation that doesn’t immediately go to ideology.”
In 1964, Forbes said, a divided Congress was able to pass both the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act.
“That wouldn’t be possible in today’s political climate,” he said.
University of Maine 4-H Center Director Ryder Scott said that when he met Senator Angus King recently, King explained that unlike many current members of Congress, he had made a decision to live full-time in Washington. He invites colleagues to get together outside of the Senate session in order to get to know one another better.
“He says it’s impossible to hate someone when you know the names of their children,” Scott said.
“Become an edge-walker”
“We are making edges and borders less permeable,” Forbes said, referring both to “hard edges” like the U.S. border with Mexico or Israel’s borders, and to perceived borders, like those between races, age groups, socio-economic classes, or political interest groups.
“Edges are the places where everyone mixes,” he said. “Successful communities are those which are able to keep those edges permeable. A community’s ability to innovate relies on its ability to accept difference.”
Fragmentation, which weakens the structure of a community, happens when communities don’t honor diversity. “It is impossible for any one sector to succeed in solving problems,” Forbes said. “Whole communities work.”
“Become an edge-walker,” he advised. “Let go of assumptions about others. Listen to, and hear, their stories.”
Jean Bass cited the Mahoosuc Music Makers community band as an example of people coming together from diverse backgrounds around a common interest.
SAD 44 Superintendent David Murphy said there is more collaboration now that there was just a few years ago among the Bethel area, the Oxford Hills, and the River Valley. “The separation is not as pronounced,” he said. “We are moving toward sharing resources and more collaboration.”
Economic development and “true wealth”
Participants represented organizations focused on conservation and land issues, such as the Mahoosuc Land Trust, and groups concerned primarily with health and wellness, like Healthy Oxford Hills, River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, Let’s Go 5210 Oxford County, and the Local Food Connection.
Others, like SAD 44, Gould Academy, Western Mountains Senior College, Mahoosuc Arts Council, Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, and West Parish Congregational Church, are educational and cultural institutions.
Groups representing the tourism and recreation industry included the Bethel Outing Club, the Outdoor Center, and Mahoosuc Pathways.
Asked what they considered “true wealth,” participants responded with “our way of life,” “safety,” “education,” “the view out the windows,” and “the people in the room.”
“It’s healthy community members at all stages of life,” one said.
“It’s the opportunity to pursue your passions,” added another.
Participants agreed that a healthy economy and sustainable economic development are vital to the overall health of the community. They pointed to a need for economic development that is compatible with the priorities that are important to community members.
Forbes said that communities are usually organized for either consumption or production. Examples of consumption economies are suburban “bedroom” communities, or those that depend largely on a tourism economy, rather than the production of materials and goods.
“The choice is constantly presented as either/or, but having both is what makes a whole community,” he said.
“Our economy isn’t going to go back to big employers with big benefits,” said Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Robin Zinchuk. “But there are so many opportunities here for entrepreneurs.”
As the session wrapped up, Telstar High School senior Tyra Howes said the future depends on empowering young people at an early age, and getting them interested in supporting their community.
“We can bring community members into the schools to promote community service opportunities,” she suggested. “We just need to identify what each person’s spark is, what gets them up in the morning.”
Telstar Middle School eighth grader Mia Shifrin stressed the importance of adults modeling positive behaviors, saying that her own parents’ involvement in community organizations like the Mahoosuc Land Trust had led her to see active participation in the community as an important responsibility.
At the end of the day, Bob Iles of the Mahoosuc Land Trust said he was impressed by how representatives of so many diverse groups were able to come together to focus on topics that are important to all of them.
“What we’re doing is very unusual,” agreed Zinchuk. “Many communities would love to have the level of collaboration and community engagement that we have.”
Founded in 2008 by a task force representing nine area nonprofits, BANC has grown to a membership of 30 organizations. In May, the Mahoosuc Arts Council received a two-year $30,000 grant from the William Bingham II Betterment Fund to share an outreach and communications specialist with BANC to enhance opportunities for collaboration among member organizations.