Editor’s note:  A version of this column appeared previously in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Darcy DuMont

Art Keene, a longtime Amherst resident, said recently, “Let’s imagine more democracy in our post-COVID world — including the promotion and practice of greater civic literacy, greater civic participation, greater civic empowerment and greater civic imagination.” 

If you care about the future of your town, you are a stakeholder. If you are homeless, a renter, a homeowner, a business owner, a farmer, a shopper, a bus rider, a car driver, a taxpayer, a parent, a teacher, a student, an employee of the town or a local business, a retiree, an activist or member of a community organization or of an otherwise underrepresented group, you have a voice and can be heard.

But do you have a “seat at the table?”

Our towns are committed to reaching out to the community as part of the democratic process, but there are now few mechanisms for incorporating public input in a meaningful way. Seeking residents to participate in town events and services and to serve on town boards and committees is the baseline of what most towns are doing — and doing well. Getting broader and more diverse input into towns’ overarching planning is much more challenging.

But being inclusive and getting public input is especially important now, in the midst of our multiple crises — so that we don’t respond to the pandemic by returning to the old normal. The pandemic and the climate crisis both tell us that we need to reimagine if we are going to survive. Those committed to the status quo can’t be the only voices that we hear as we endeavor to reinvent the world.

What then are the best practices for obtaining this community input? Outreach to collect public opinion data is just one part of the equation. Conducting that type of outreach alone is an empty exercise. The decision-makers also need not just to hear, but to listen, to community voices and to have the courage and imagination to envision and enact change.

I look here at a few of ways our towns have recently reached out to empower community members or to seek greater civic participation. Much of the organized and proactive community outreach in Massachusetts is around issues of sustainability and climate.

Community surveys or dashboards are a way to get community participation and input. Wayland and Concord are piloting a program through Massenergize.org to help get residents involved and participating in the towns’ climate actions plans. Wayland’s goal is that 50% of households directly participate in climate action, and their community dashboard keeps track of their progress in attaining that goal.

Several local municipalities have gotten a taste of what it takes to do deep community outreach through processes funded by state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grants

Amherst’s current MVP process includes reaching out to diverse stakeholders to weigh in on its climate action and resiliency plan. As part of that process, the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC), with town staff, is forming sector-based task groups to do planning about buildings, energy, transportation, agriculture, land use, development, public health, communications, green infrastructure and more. 

And whose voices will be heard? The task groups will be composed of a mix of local activists, community organizations, business and landowners, farmers, town staff, and have a special focus on hearing from people projected to be hardest hit by climate impacts, such as minorities, low-income residents, renters, bus riders, non-English speakers and disabled people. The town will provide interpreters in multiple languages, as well as in sign language for the task groups.

Amherst Town Council is also considering providing a process for stakeholder outreach on measures considered by the council.

A proposal to create a Community Advisory Board composed of residents was made in 2017. The board was to look at impacts on specific neighborhoods and populations, streetscapes, taxpayers, the town economy, public safety, sustainability (now “climate impacts”), and on democratic governance, with the endgame being a “Community Impact Report” for the council to use.

The CAB was referred by the Town Council to the Community Resources Committee (CRC) where it was reviewed and worked on for a year. The committee accepted the proposal for community outreach to stakeholders, but not the creation of a resident body to do so. In April of this year, the draft outreach proposal was transferred from the CRC to the new Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Committee, which has as part of its charge, to “ensure regular and transparent communication and outreach to residents of Amherst.” 

In the upcoming weeks, TSO will look at creating a review process that will take diverse voices and stakeholder interests into consideration, including by looking at best practices in other communities and contexts. Time will tell whether the new council will provide the type of community participation and feedback that the proposers envisioned or that our local climate action planning has modeled.

Again, if decision-makers hear but don’t really listen — if they simply take what they hear and shape it to support strategies that they’ve already embraced, that’s likely to take us back to the problems that we have right now.

The mega-crisis of public health, climate and democracy demand greater public discussion and more purposeful engagement in imagining.

Darcy DuMont is on the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now MA, is an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5 and the lead sponsor of the legislation to establish an Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

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