Making a community better takes empathy and work from all of us
BAR HARBOR—What does it take for people to be kind to each other even in local politics? That question has become the undercurrent in many town committee and board meetings this past year and the September 6 Town Council meeting was no exception.
Council Chair Valerie Peacock began the Town Council meeting with a beautiful statement imploring empathy within the community.
“As we turn the corner of summer into September, I’m taking a deep breath and looking forward to the consistency and regularity that fall and winter bring to my life and schedule. It’s been a full and big summer. Personally it’s been all over the place- even as I have enjoyed time on boats and in tents, I have also felt the weight of the world as we struggle to understand the impacts of COVID, as family and friends struggle in different ways, as systems are being tested and failing and not to mention local, national and international politics and crises,” she said.
A 2017 article by Elizabeth Lynch and Mitch Combs in the Illinois State University newspaper, references a book by Joseph Zompetti, a professor at Illinois State University and writes, “According to Zompetti, polarization is a complex phenomenon, but it is essentially the extreme divide between liberal and conservative ideologies. This divide is widening based on the competitive, ‘us-versus-them’ mentality communicated to political audiences. These mentalities are often stubborn, aggressive, and fail to include other perspectives.”
Polarization is easy. End-of-the-world statements sell. News filled with melodramatic rhetoric and half facts? That sells too, but what’s needed throughout our lives—political and personal—is what Warrant Committee Member Kevin DesVeaux called for at a recent meeting: communication, collaboration, and compromise.
Peacock’s statement at the opening of the Town Council meeting illustrated her similar feelings and showed her vulnerability as a human and as an elected official.
“And, though I’m in my third year on the council, this is only my fifth meeting as chair. I am very much still learning what this seat means, how to manage the workload and how to move from reactive to proactive spaces. I, and we, have real work to do. But if you’ll allow, I’d like to share some thoughts on how I believe we might get to this magical fairyland of a collective process that results in community building AND work that is good for our whole community. I believe, we have to get more comfortable with a few things:
- The work of living together as a community is a swirly, messy, complicated thing. Just think about some of the issues we’re dealing with and it’s easy to see that the solutions are rarely black and white– they often lie in the gray. We need to learn how to be comfortable with the gray.
- We can’t start with the expectation of perfection. I make mistakes all the time and will continue to. I am learning all the time. Sometimes we have to start with imperfect solutions to move forward and do something. If we demand perfection, we won’t make any progress. How can we give ourselves room to make mistakes and start somewhere?
- This work needs to be centered on empathy- defined as the ‘ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ As we participate as a community, how are we listening for understanding? Are we looking at each other to see our similarities, or are we preparing to shout out our differences? This work needs us to participate in a way that allows good ideas to emerge from our real engagement with each other. And we need to take a hard look at whose voices aren’t being heard.”
Centering on empathy isn’t often something you hear in politics, but her thoughts were echoed in a statement by resident Nina Barufaldi St. Germain during the public comments section of the meeting.
She said, “I have been troubled by rhetoric. Rhetoric is used to sway or persuade people to a particular way of thinking and contributes to the polarity we have in our community. Often when cruise ships or vacation rentals come up in discussion, there is a parallel discussion of destruction.”
During the Thursday night Planning Board meeting, multiple committee members spoke of townspeople feeling as if there was a long-standing distrust of the two-thirds majority rule as a reason for supporting the measure. However, none cited a specific instance of that distrust. It could absolutely be there. But without specific instances cited, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s just perception.
In a Harvard Business Review’s article ‘The Neuroscience of Trust,’ Paul Zak speaks of trust in an neuroscientific way, focusing on why people trust—or distrust—each other. Zak is the founding director of the Center of Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics and psychology at Claremont University’s graduate program.
In that article, Zak writes that “building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”
This is also likely true about communities and local government. To make productive change, we have to trust the mechanisms to make that change. We have to collaborate. It creates healthier people and healthier communities.
To build trust Zak wrote that people must recognize excellence, allow others discretion or agency as they work, share as much information as possible to as many people as possible and work toward building relationships and allow yourself to appear vulnerability, which is what Peacock did in her opening statement at the Town Council meeting.
At the September 6 Town Council meeting, St Germain also intuitively channeled Zak’s advice as she said,
“This language is deeply polarizing and negative, and the more it is used, the more our community believes it and/or fights against it. Inherent in these statements lie blame for the people who work in those industries that they have intertwined their lives with something that is destroying the very community they are in. I don’t think we want to tell the people that live and work here that they are responsible for actively destroying our town when they are in permitted industries.
“I have vacation rentals which will, if I operate them well, become year round homes for my children. I am so excited for my children to have homes here. Many people in my generation are doing this. Those children will become part of this community. They are great kids, and yet when I say it, I feel ashamed for doing what I was allowed to do. I followed the rules. It’s like being offered a cookie and then being shamed for taking the cookie.
“I have lived in ruined towns. I am a product of paper industry here in Maine.
“There is nothing in Bar Harbor that is ruined. We have a blue ribbon school. We have beautiful, clean sidewalks, public parks, a vibrant economy, year-round hotels, stores, and restaurants, good water, good air, trees and ocean all around, libraries, children’s programming, industry, a hospital, and my stars, this town is very safe. We have people who are passionate about caring for our town. These are not signs of a town in ruin; these are signs of a town thriving.
“We do have things we need to work on to make sure our town continues to thrive. We have problems, yes. We have needs, yes. These are priorities. We have something valuable to protect.
“I invite you and us all to attempt to release blame from the language we use in an effort to decrease polarity and increase the likelihood of us all working together to take on the work of protecting what is so valuable to all of us.”
CAN THE RHETORIC BE LESSENED?
So the question becomes how do small communities decrease that divisiveness, work together, and celebrate what they have while building to make it even better?
A 2021 American Psychological Association report by Kirk Waldroff states:
Neighbors are still neighbors whether or not they agree on cruise ships, the two-thirds rule, or whether or not there should be marijuana retail shops in the downtown transitional zone. I’ve personally witnessed people on opposite sides of the political spectrum pet each others’ dogs, jump each other’s trucks, and shovel each other’s driveways when they are in need. The hyperbolic talk of Facebook or in town meetings is just that: hyperbole. Like Peacock and St. Germain, we can all realize that and work toward the communication, collaboration, and compromise that DesVeaux speaks of. It’s actually what the cruise ship task force has started to do. It’s what the parks and recreation committee in the town does. It’s what numerous local nonprofits and neighbors do every single day. But we’ve stopped seeing the good. We are hyper-focusing on the bad. Does the bad exist? Yes. But it is not all that there is.
The Public Agenda/USA Today had a survey about divisiveness in the United States in 2021 and wrote:
All parts of the community have to be engaged to lessen hyperbolic rhetoric, experts say. That includes the media, the elected and appointed and hired officials as well as the citizenry. Freedom of speech, however, is a guaranteed right in the United States, so rhetoric and hyperbole can continue unless the individuals within a community all decide to tamp down their own.
In his Harvard Business Review article, Zak wrote, “Former Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.”
It’s time for us all to be servants to the community we live in, to take deep breaths and listen, to thank each other for what we do, to define the reality that we want Bar Harbor to be and what it actually is. Should we call out injustices? Absolutely! But we also need to remember what empathy is, what it is to be a community, and how we can do our best to make our communities better.
Yehuda Berg said, “A true community is not just about being geographically close to someone or part of the same social web network. It’s about feeling connected and responsible for what happens. Humanity is our ultimate community, and everyone plays a crucial role.”
And Max Carver wrote, “Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.”
Whether we’re writing the news, making the news, or commenting on it, we all have roles to play . Pessimism helps us not get disappointed and hurt. Bitterness can be addictive.
Here’s the thing: Hate is easy and it’s lazy; it’s simple. But community? That takes work. Good work. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Editor’s note: Don’t worry. We will only rarely (think once a month or less) share our own opinion piece here on the Bar Harbor Story. Readers are always welcome to, of course! Just send an email to email@example.com As long as it isn’t libelous, slanderous, filled with untruths or too many swear words, we’ll post it.