Some smart ICA colleague or colleagues discovered, as they tramped around the vast open spaces of Montana or Wyoming or Utah calling on townspeople that a town meeting did not have to be an all day affair but could be accomplished in an evening, in about three-and-a-half hours, and without the quality or productivity suffering. In Maine this proved a little difficult because people did not like to get out much after dark. We were aiming toward one Saturday in November when we would send teams of two out to each town we could schedule on that one day.
Maine Street, Rockland, Maine Court House, Rockland, Maine
But we did happen to call on a Methodist Minister in the coastal town of Rockland who believed that people in his town would not come to an all-day forum. He somehow convinced us that he single-handedly could host the meeting in his church’s fellowship hall and that he would do all the contacting, inviting and publicizing to ensure a good attendance. I should have trusted my gut instinct and our years of experience working with local church clergy, who were notorious for promising to take on tasks and not following through. They would often double, triple, even quadruple-schedule meetings to attend and then pop in and out for half an hour in each one. Not that their intentions were other than honorable. It must have been the “all-things-to-all-people” image that they were caught in. I had some empathy, having been in their position at one time.
Rev. Wesley was a fine and enthusiastic young man. We scheduled the meeting for two weeks later and left the details in his willing hands, after giving him as much orientation and sample flyers and promotional materials as we could in a short visit. I phoned him the week before and he assured me all would be ready for a well-attended and productive evening. We always assigned a team of two to facilitate the forums. I and a young woman who was an ICA volunteer arrived the afternoon of the town meeting to find that, indeed, the Rev. Wesley had distributed flyers in the community, published an announcement in the Rockland paper, personally invited the town leaders, arranged the tables and chairs in the hall in the format as we had instructed, and had even provided a spread of refreshments along with coffee and tea. All was in readiness.
Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Rockland, Maine
The hour of the meeting came. The three of us sat in anticipation of the arrival of the citizenry. People often straggle in at such community meetings. But there are always a few who are on time for everything. I thought that surely at least some of Rev. Wesley’s flock would show up, to show support for him if for no other reason. A half-hour passed, then 45 minutes, finally an hour. The realization came slowly but surely. No one else was coming. It had long been a doctrine of our group that whoever showed up for any endeavor was exactly those who were needed for its accomplishment.
Rev. Wesley was embarrassed. He began to re-iterate all that he had done to ensure a successful attendance. I was not going to heap more guilt on his already feeling like a failure. I ventured:
“Well, since we came all this way, and there is all this food and drink and we have prepared all the materials, and we have a great process for citizen participation, would you like to be the Town Meeting and we’ll take you through it just as though you were 200 strong?”
T hat was the turning point of the evening. The Rev. Wesley’s eyes lit up. It was as if his body began to levitate. “Why not,” he said. “Let’s do it!”
And we did. We the facilitators went through our little speeches about the New Human and the New Community, and the pioneering qualities of being global citizens working at the local community level. We drew on the history of the country as well as the lessons of the revolutions of our day, the youth, women, civil rights, and the desire of every human to participate and make a difference.
Then we asked and wrote on big flip chart paper: “What are the big challenges facing Rockland right now?” “Oh, young people are leaving after high school because they can’t find jobs.” “And the newspaper is going under so people won’t have access to local issues and events.” “Oh yes, and small fishermen are no longer able to make a living.” After recording the challenges we asked him what the real underlying obstacles to dealing with them were.
Then we posed the question of what practical actions could local citizens take to deal with the obstacles and meet the challenges. “We could start a ‘buy local’ campaign.” “We could have quarterly community meetings to address issues.” “We could work with our fishermen to form a cooperative.” These were all flip-charted and then written in the form of proposals.
Finally, we took the Rev. Wesley through what was known as the ‘Song, Story, Symbol’ workshop. We had him choose a familiar sing-able tune and wrote three verses, then pulled out of his weary brain the highlights of the history of Rockland and wrote a town story following the theme of past, present, and future. Lastly, we got out the colored markers and a big sheet of poster paper and created a new symbol in graphic form.
As we reflected on the evening and how any of the proposals might be actually implemented, my partner who fortunately was a crack typist, completed the document containing the entire evening’s work, and we all went into the church office and ran it off on the mimeograph machine.
And as we were stapling the pages of the copies together, we discussed the follow-up strategy. Rev. Wesley was now on a roll: “I could take this one proposal up with my Rotary Club. And this one the Ministerial Association might be interested in tackling. And the Chamber of Commerce could easily take one this one. And that one I’m sure the Kiwanis Club would like.”
We left Rockland in good hands. I have thought of that meeting many times and of course, told the story on many occasions sitting around the imagined campfire. All of us who were involved in that Town Meeting campaign have our stories. I would like to have known if any of those proposals ever got accomplished and whatever happened to Rev. Wesley.
But the Town Meeting when almost nobody came turned out to be a great and memorable event.