On Sunday, two days before the Amherst election, I gathered my Candidates for Change literature to continue to listen to what’s on voters’ minds and to share why I believe Ellisha Walker, Allegra Clark, Jennifer Shiao, Laura Jane Hunter, Martha Toro, and Bridget Hynes will help move our community and school district towards greater transparency, equity, and ultimately wellbeing for all of Amherst’s residents, teachers, staff, and students – particularly those whose needs tend to get minimized or swept under the rug.
Canvassing is an interesting experience.
I’ve met neighbors for the first time and had lovely chats over mountains of mulch and piles of leaves. I’ve had the door closed in my face. I’ve heard folks say they want “sanity,” but without necessarily digging into what that looks like.
I’ve heard many people lament the “tone” in Amherst, namely the “mistreatment” of former School Committee Members.
Interestingly, these folks don’t usually acknowledge the mistreatment – to the point of suicidality – of children in our schools, or the adults who didn’t interrupt it sooner if at all.
I’ve heard people say they really can’t even follow what’s going on, and heard people thank me for “doing the work,” whether they agree with me or not – these I always appreciate, simply the humanity of it.
I’ve listened to stories about how Amherst schools have changed – namely gone downhill – and stories about how Amherst schools haven’t changed at all.
I heard at least one person say they’d pay more attention to local politics if it felt like something “big” was at stake. (That one made me go “hmmm.”)
In other words, people’s perspectives and opinions are all over the map.
One of the most enlightening things about going door to door on a Sunday afternoon is that some welcome the conversation and some refuse it.
There are those who recognize the upside-downness of labeling vocal and concerned citizens as bullies, and those who want things to be comfortable.
This is a false dichotomy that risks pitting kindness and positive, necessary change against each other. One of the things I have learned in these last six months is that holding those in positions of power to account may feel like a personal attack. But we can have respect for each other as humans without agreeing or assenting to a politics of opacity and defensiveness.
At the end of the day, the only way to move the needle towards a healthier relationship between elected officials and community members is to elect people who will welcome the hard conversations, risk standing out from established norms, and serve as a bridge. In other words, we need town councilors and school committee members who respect residents, teachers, and staff and recognize where deeply rooted and chronically under-examined inequities in our district maintain a status quo that serves only some of our town’s population.
Even with those who reject the opportunity to talk on their doorsteps, I welcome canvassing as a real-time experience of getting to know my neighbors near and far. At the end of the day, these are the encounters more of us need to make time for if we are going to move our collective dialogue in the direction of more trust and less judgment.
This is a two-way street, and I hope those who have been swayed by the rhetoric of “personal attacks” and “vitriol” will pause before voting to consider who is towing this line, and which candidates are asking us to stretch beyond our comfort zones. This is not antithetical to healthy civic discourse but rather its foundation.
See you at the polls.
Jena Schwartz is a writing coach, parent, and resident of Amherst.