Opinion: We Must Listen To Each Other

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Robert Greeney

We write letters and commentaries. We attend public forums. We do not feel listened to. It is a distinctly unpleasant process of “begging” to be heard. Power needs to be shared. Members of our community need to have voice and presence in all deliberations. Appropriate compromises would be found that would be to the benefit of all. Our collective energy, lost to so much friction, could be directed into constructive community building initiatives.

Exhibit #1 – Schools – pause and consider. It is so easy to blame Town Meeting for the fact that we do not have a new school building. The 10 to 20 years of unmet needs in our schools is largely the result of not working together and including, from the beginning, all major views. In hindsight, we could have easily corrected many of the current problems 15 years ago for far less money than the $40 million we now need. It was a mistake to delay action for lack of MSBA funding. Then, when the funding finally came, we crafted a plan that was highly divisive from the beginning and “the powers that were” refused to invite and include diversity of ideas and fashion a compromise. The mistaken imperative to “get things done” and not to include and not compromise resulted in nothing getting done. The angry half blames Town Meeting. The other angry half blames not being listened to. Is there any hope of changing this practice of governance that diminishes the collective wisdom and quality of outcomes?

Exhibit #2 – Library – Why did library staff and the Board of Trustees not open the process at the first and early signs of deep divisiveness. Is this a manifestation of the dynamic of power and exclusion so rife in our culture? I am certain that had the process been truly open and inclusionary five years ago, that long before today we would have a plan that would be widely supported and perhaps even under construction by now.

Exhibit #3 – Planning Board – A nine member board is reduced to seven. Criteria for the selection of members are changed, even reversed, seemingly to facilitate the appointment of specific candidates. Whatever the motive, the result is clear, we have a Planning Board that does not include the views of major cross-sections of our community. 

Exhibit #4 – Town Meeting Room – pre-Covid, we would physically go to meetings and the public was separated from the Select Board, Planning Board, etc. by a rather modest set of tables. That level of separation has now been amplified to a more ponderous and intimidating dais. Personally, I would find it uncomfortable and embarrassing to separate myself from my community members by such an imposing structure. I doubt that anyone thought consciously about that, when the renovation was done. In a time of renewed focus on issues of diversity, equity, and Inclusion (DEI), it deserves our attention that we unconsciously followed a past practice that is emblematic of domination and intimidation. 

My plea is genuine and from my heart. I am not trying to be clever and insulting. I am not trying to elevate my views above any others. It is in the interest of improved community and togetherness that I write this letter. I ask all of us to renew our efforts to build connection and consensus. To monitor our practice for micro-aggressions and exclusionary behaviors. It is absurdly idealistic to imagine we might behave in a manner that has continued to elude almost all forms of governance in our current culture. We have a lot of work to do. Let us do it together, building unity, dissolving division, and creating outcomes that meet our collective needs and wishes.

Robert Greeney is a 26-year resident of Amherst, Professor of Physics at Holyoke Community College, and an avid amateur potter, poet, painter, and photographer.

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