Opinion: A Call For Kindness

Photo: Pixabay.com. Public domain

Maria Kopicki

I was hoping that this time around, we could have dialogue about the school building project that did not devolve into personal attacks on individuals and their motivations. I had hoped that we could have meaningful conversations with each other that remained neutral, not in content, but in tone. I wished that we could have differing perspectives about how to approach the many complex components of a municipal infrastructure project and have open, fruitful exchanges where we were able to really listen to each other and find the common ground that exists(!) and that we must find for a successful conclusion. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case at present. I am still hopeful that we can change that, with town and school leadership setting strong examples and the rest of us taking a moment to embody what we say we are teaching our children in the very schools that are at the heart of this controversy: empathy and kindness.

I want to talk about two specific instances that are, unfortunately, the current norm. The first occurred at one of the recent visioning sessions for the school building project. The parent of a child with special needs referenced the request for a discussion between school leaders and the public about how to deliver services to students in the three district-wide special education programs. I think she made some good points. However, she then went on to accuse those of us who have asked for the discussion of speaking for others and implied that our views are not deserving of respect and have nefarious motivations. She said, “Sometimes people speak for others from a knowledge base that they don’t have. It’s really important to let the voices of the people who have experience with these issues to have the floor…I don’t think it’s coming from a place of knowledge, or intensity, or lived experience.” 

I don’t believe this person meant to be cruel, but her comments, and many similar ones that have been made publicly over the past five years, are very hurtful to me and I’m sure to others. I am also the mother of a special needs child and for someone to say that I don’t understand and I’m not part of that community, and to imply that I don’t care about these kids and their families is, and has been, extremely difficult. That a municipal building project has become so highly emotionally charged that we forget that we are all people with feelings and personal stories of our own is the worst tragedy of our failures as a town. 

I am genuinely happy that the parent I reference has had good experiences with these programs, and I respect her opinion that they should remain centralized as they are currently. The irony is that I have been advocating for exactly what she said, but which has not been done – the district has not made an effort to hear from a broad representation of all the families who participate in these programs to find out how well they are working for them. We don’t actually know whether or not they share her opinion or have other ideas about what works best for their families. Perhaps their experiences are different from this parent or those in her social circles, or from those who attend the special education parents’ group that she chaired. 

When I was caring for my son, who had very serious and complicated medical and developmental challenges, I was not able, for many reasons, to participate in SEPAC meetings. My world became very focused on negotiating intense medical and other care. I learned quickly that getting special needs met was a grueling process and I was aware that I was in a privileged position to have the medical background and financial stability to fight these battles. I also met many other parents who did not have these advantages, and I witnessed first hand the disparate care and outcomes that result. We shared the common identity of being a family that included a child who had special needs, but we all came to this world with different needs, concerns, and barriers to care.

All that was needed in that moment at the visioning session, and so many other moments in public settings, was for someone to point out that the people who raise concerns and questions should receive the same assumptions of good intent and respect that is afforded to “allies.” But none of the elected or appointed officials or consultants moderating that meeting said a word.

Amherst is certainly not unique in this erosion of civil discourse. In many ways, we are a sad microcosm of national norms. This was also evident in the second instance I want to bring up – the Town Councilor retreat held this past weekend. Councilors were being asked to share their priorities and concerns, and one of the newly elected members used a term that has been amplified by a political action committee, Amherst Forward, to describe anyone who has a different opinion or perspective on any issue. She spoke of needing to get around the “naysayers” to make things happen. This terminology was quickly adopted by the consultant who had been hired to moderate this event. Fortunately, in this instance, another new member did speak up and the wording was modified, although still maintaining the unhelpful and inaccurate framing of “us versus them” by replacing it with “supporters vs opponents.” It doesn’t seem to matter that people want projects to succeed, just with a different perspective on what that might look like, or how hard people continue to work to try to contribute. This continued description of people as “opponents” is false and damaging to both individuals and our common goals.

This isn’t about me specifically, and I wholeheartedly reject the sentiment that my experiences with my son were something to be pitied. He was, and will always be, despite all the painful and terrifying times, one of the best things I will ever have had in my life. What I am asking for is that we all remember that none of us know what others have lived and are living unless they share that with us. Many of you have family members or friends with serious medical or mental health challenges; many of you are having difficulties in your relationships; many of you are struggling financially; and on and on. What we all need is some empathy and kindness. That means not turning differences of opinion into personal attacks. It means embracing that someone sees a different way to approach an issue, rather than trying to find out a way to discredit them because it does not conform to one’s own viewpoint. It means speaking up when you see someone else doing that, even (or especially) when it is an ally or a friend. 

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9 thoughts on “Opinion: A Call For Kindness

  1. I am sorry that you had this painful experience Maria. I know you have a deep understanding of the difficult issues involving special needs kids through your own experience that you have not shared publicly. People make a lot of quick assumptions — especially when someone is saying something they disagree with, although here you were both in agreement. It’s easy to dismiss people and harder to take the time to learn more about them–or simply not to assume. I have done this many times myself.

    Calling someone a naysayer or opponent is a way to shut down a person down and not have to address the questions, ideas, issues, problems or information presented by the “naysayer.” It gets the name-caller off the hook and they can stop listening or responding. Because, of course they are right and the naysayer is just wrong. So then no public process, decision-making process or decision itself, no matter how crummy, can be questioned. And no one really has to answer questions, collect more information, look at other ways to do things, respond to an idea or criticism, and maybe even change a project or decision. The required public meetings were held. It’s just bunch of naysayers always standing in the way. And calling people opponents or naysayers certainly makes it easier to send out a catchy email to incite your contact list with a call for action. Then, after ignoring residents’ voices and concerns and pushing through a project or decision through, then it is time to lament. Why is everyone so upset? Why is there so much anger and bad tone? This will be followed by a generous a call for reduced rancor, sitting down together to talk through differences and finding a better way to have public dialogue.

    We do need more kindness–and listening. We need a government that responds to people’s ideas, questions and concerns. We need much, much better public decision-making process.

  2. I will try to be guided by Maria’s wisdom but I am very angry right now. Not surprised, I guess, but saddened. I am a proud nay-sayer on several fundamental issues and I would happily wear a “proud naysayer” badge (although no-one would ever see it since I don’t leave the house).

    Nay-saying – or dissent – is the foundation of democracy. If dissent is suppressed, or ignored the body politic is on the road to dictatorship. There are ways to get off the road, but as Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt.” It would be worth reflecting on how that might pertain to Amherst.

    I do believe that those in power – and those who elected them – are acting in what they perceive is the best interest for Amherst. I will always support them when I agree with them and I will always oppose them when I disagree with them.
    What more could they want from an informed citizenry? Do they really want those who disagree to be quiet?

    On the Special Education issue to which Maria refers I have no opinion because I don’t know the details. I have been out of the school system for over thirty years, but when I was in it, I was distressed with the ease with which we labeled children who received support as “special needs” children. They rarely lost that label or ceased receiving that support. I believed then and I believe now that all children should receive an IEP which notes their strengths as well as their deficits and that services, whenever possible, should be delivered in the classroom. That was the original intention of Chapter 766, the Special Education Act in Massachusetts.

    But I know that it is not always possible and that may be what the current discussion is all about. I don’t know the issues at hand, but I do know Maria, her brilliance, her kindness and her devotion and service to Amherst and its schools.
    When we disagree, which sometimes happens, I think long and hard about my position. I am grateful for her friendship and her mentorship.

  3. While not mentioned by name, I am referenced here as the councilor who “spoke of needing to get around the ‘naysayers’ to make things happen”. I was disheartened to read that interpretation, as I would never suggest it, and did not recall saying as much at the retreat. I did reach out to the article privately (thank you Art, for the connection) and we were able to meet up and talk. I asked if she wanted to edit the article and she did not, which is absolutely her right. I still felt it needed to be addressed, and am hoping to offer clarity, and maybe some reassurance in this comment.

    For context, at the part of the retreat referenced in the above article, the Council was discussing an unofficial process for how we move from idea to policy. We all have things we would like to advance for the town, and it can be confusing to figure out how to go from an idea to an actual bylaw, resolution, amendment, etc… We had been brainstorming steps in the process (e.g. talk to town staff, see if other councilors might also be interested). To be very clear, this conversation was not about any particular issue.

    For those who would like the receipts, I encourage you to watch the video of the retreat. To spare you five hours, you can skip to 2:32:24 (this link should start you at that point https://youtu.be/oXD0HmQBpw0?t=9122 ) for the statement in question. In the video you can hear me saying the following: “…we need to get feedback (on our ideas) from supporters, get feedback from naysayers…to then gain ideas for multiple or collaborative solutions.”

    In my comment, I was saying the opposite of what the author stated in this article. Not that we should “get around” people who are not supportive of our individual ideas. That we must engage all voices, not just those which are in agreement with our own, in the development of our ideas, not just once the policy has been crafted. There is no defined “side” in that, as every initiative has different folks in support or opposition. The principle is that we need to not exist in an echo chamber, but respectfully engage people who have multiple opinions of what we are trying to do from the onset. In the retreat I happily accepted someone’s suggestion of changing the language away from “naysayers”, as I had no attachment nor association with that particular word. I do not recall it ever being used in a charged way to describe a specific set of individuals (that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been, but I have never associated it with a particular group or issue), and absolutely did not intend it to refer to any individuals or groups. I was pulling from a mindset where it is important in generating ideas, to speak to those who do not believe your process is the best process, to collaborate, change and seek consensus, and ultimately strengthen what is brought forward as legislation. Again, this was not in regards to any specific issue, but just a general hypothetical and informal process.

    Look, I know what I signed up for when I decided to run for Council. I know there will be people who vehemently disagree with me, and I will always listen and engage to the best of my ability. I am comfortable sitting in a space where I am in disagreement with another person. I hope, and know people will call me out if I do or say things you disagree or take issue with. However, I do consider myself to be a person with integrity and believe I owe it to those reading this and to myself all to clarify the actual quote. I welcome further conversation. You can reach me at devlingauthiera@amherstma.gov

  4. I was in a “getting to know you” conversation that included Ana Devlin Gauthier, and met the person she describes in her comment above. When I asked her if she had any questions for the people gathered, she asked “what would make you feel heard?” That made me feel heard, as well as her listening well to our responses.

    At the same time, not about Ana, I recently read the report about the work done by CivicMoxie, to help think through future downtown Amherst. I was glad to read several mentions of public input, but sad to see that no “naysayers” (blech!) were involved in that project. The “naysayers” have had useful input into how to make downtown Amherst viable, balanced, sustainable, and maintain and build character. But I guess we got a “nay” on being invited into that crucial discussion. Hopefully, when the economic development director is finally hired, as well as the expert on design standards, we will be invited to the party, so that our very positive visions for how Amherst can evolve will be included.

  5. I hope both of the previous commenters will read what Councilor Devlin Gauthier has written. I am very disappointed to read that the original author was not interested in correcting the record – this seems to counter the call for more empathy and kindness. Further, this seems to be something the Indy should require – when given clear evidence that the point was taken out of context?

  6. Janet and Michael – Thank you for your kind words. Thanks also to those of you who have reached out privately to offer support and share your own stories with me.

    I want to acknowledge that my choice of words did not reflect Ana’s statement. She did not express a desire to “get around” people and I apologize for that misattribution.

    My primary concern was, and is, her use of the term “naysayers” – a pejorative that evoked for me the many other times that this term has been used in the public sphere, by both officials and residents. The word goes beyond merely describing someone who dissents once a final decision is at hand. It implies, and has been used to characterize, people as obstructionist and against everything. It has also been applied to those who raise questions or concerns at any point in processes and projects, with the suggestion that those perspectives and opinions are not worthy of consideration or respect and should instead be disregarded or shunned.

    Perhaps we can agree that all of us can be more mindful that our words can produce unintended responses and that our prior experiences and context matter a great deal. I am glad to have spoken directly with Ana and hope that this sort of dialogue can continue to happen amongst many people in town who find themselves at odds with one another for whatever reason. I welcome her call to “respectfully engage people who have multiple opinions of what we are trying to do from the onset.”

  7. I appreciate that Ms. Devlin Gauthier highlighted the context for her specific comment, and addressed her motives.

    However, the initial use of terminology is only a minor point of Dr. Kopicki’s comment, which, after briefly noting Ms. DG’s use of the terms, then states

    This terminology was quickly adopted by the consultant who had been hired to moderate this event. Fortunately, in this instance, another new member did speak up and the wording was modified, although still maintaining the unhelpful and inaccurate framing of “us versus them” by replacing it with “supporters vs opponents.” It doesn’t seem to matter that people want projects to succeed, just with a different perspective on what that might look like, or how hard people continue to work to try to contribute. This continued description of people as “opponents” is false and damaging to both individuals and our common goals.

    In other words, it’s about a ready adoption and use of oppositional terminology.

    Elsewhere in Dr. Kopicki’s comment, she notes that the disparagement of motives by another speaker was left uncorrected. In my experience, officials and leaders do tend to admonish and correct tones and comments, but only of those whom they deem adverse to their positions. This unequal enforcement (tone policing, if you will) has the effect of adding salt to wounds rather than leadership aimed at fostering civility and participation. As Dr. Kopoicki notes, “It means speaking up when you see someone else doing that, even (or especially) when it is an ally or a friend. “

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