Try on their Boots: making allies in Western Maine

In the western Maine community of Bethel there’s an organization called BANC (Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative) that I think more so as the Try on the Boots Project because it’s goal is to build relationships and understanding through a deeper, more substantive engagement of citizens around their differences.  BANC seeks to help people walk in each others boots in a community grappling with potent changes that arise from a transition from forest products to tourism industry and the influx of residents from other places who often have larger incomes and different life experiences.  It’s been both an honor and an education for me to collaborate with BANC as they intentionally build a culture of listening within their community among loggers, farmers, landowners, ski areas, town officials, mothers and fathers, business people, educators and youth get to know each other and hear each other’s perspectives.

When a particularly visible land use issue divided the community across lines of have-mores and have-lesses, how long you’ve lived there, forest products versus tourism, BANC asked for my collaboration to create a different kind of dialogue that might better equip the community to handle the next land use issue with more inclusivity and yield a result with less emphasis on winners and losers.

Chart for Making Allies, describing four areas: Obligations and Rights at opposite ends and Have More and Have Less at opposite endsThe first step in Making Allies work is to set a table for the dialogue that leaves no one out.  I asked BANC who is visible and less visible to them on this issues.  I asked them to work with a task force to fill out this Making Allies framework of 4 quadrants so they could see more clearly the differences within their own community.  We then agreed quickly on the importance of convening across diagonal quadrants to bring together groups oriented toward the land but divided by industry, privilege and power.  Though we did not know it at the time, there was also a natural division between these worlds on where they were primarily oriented toward production or primarily oriented toward consumption.

BANC then reached out to these very different audiences within their community with a very honest and proactive set of questions: Do you care for your land? Do you work for your land? Is your work appreciated? Are your rights protected? Is the future of land management a concern to you? If any of these questions raise concern, then come talk about it with your friends and neighbors

A second principle of Making Allies work is to make visible the history of a community that has created these potential and real divides.  Sometimes this is done through research and the publishing of the story about that land loss.  In this case, when time was short, we accomplished the task through me interviewing participants and asking them direct questions about that history, and then sharing that story with the group at the very beginning of the dialogue.  By making the “800-pound Guerrilla” clearly visible in the room, we also made it possible to talk honestly about what the community needed and wanted for how it dealt with future land use issues.

Where’s an example of some of the story that was shared:

When I was a kid they used to say, “If you don’t do well in school you’ll end up working in the mill.” And that attitude contributed to a community without any mills. Some kids would love to work in a mill and others would love to work in the service industry.  Can we be more respectful of what all of us need?

People come here from away and it becomes Us versus Them. They leave their cars and block our logging roads. Their good time makes our livelihoods hard. Many of us would like to see our mill re-open and would like to see Sunday River become a year-round operation. To do this, we need to have a real collaboration between the Volvo folks and the Chevy folks.  Our real challenge is to hold our community to higher purpose that just having fun.  We’ve got to make real jobs for our kids.

New folks coming here feeling sorry for old timers is insulting. Folks who have been living here longer tend to have all the service jobs. This has to be understood against the context that 25 years ago there were 13 mills that provided good year-round jobs with benefits to a lot of people. Too many folks now look down their noses at what was actually a pretty good thing.

The people who have lived here for a long time feel they have lost things: power, jobs, income, even land (through attempted regulation).

I want to put up this sign: “If your land is posted then so is mine.”

Do we want to live by laws or by courtesy? I want to live by courtesy first and rely on laws when our relationships fail.  How can we act with more courtesy toward one another?

I get the sense that our community feels that tourism is growing and that forest products industry is dying. Is that really good for us?  Don’t we need both? Can’t we work toward keeping both?

How about this for a principle: We won’t accept a tourism industry that hurts logging, or a logging industry that hurts our tourism. Why can’t we commit to doing both well?  What would that take?  How do we pay our respects better? It’s easy to blame the folks driving the Volvos and wearing the pattagucci cloths, but the truth is that we need all 3 facets: forest products, farmers and tourists.

By sharing these stories, we were respecting the story-tellers and thereby making it more possible to work together constructively.  Making Allies work is all about respect through understanding and making visible difference.

Here’s a set of agreements that emerged from the group of loggers, farmers, large landowners, ski area representatives, conservationists, town officials, and recreational businesses in Bethel:

Principles for Keeping the Balance between Production and Consumption in our Community:

  • Show respect, listen and judge each other less. Try on someone else’s boots.
  • Check our egos at the door and recognize that a lot is at stake.
  • We commit to learning from our differences. Our two worlds come from different life experiences and perspectives that are valuable to our future.
  • Meet more often with intention. Stay engaged. Talk to each other in a language both can understand.
  • Seek to have the people most affected involved and at the table. We will meet people in their space in their time.
  • The relationships between our sectors have to be maintained even when one says “No” to the other.  We are willing to agree to disagree.
  • We’re human. We’ll make mistakes. Let’s forgive and stay in relationship.
  • Don’t leave things unsaid. Ask questions. We want to work together to adapt to change.
  • Let’s build from where we can agree. We may be able to express a shared vision of who we want our community to become while disagreeing over strategies like zoning.

Requests of each other to keep relationships strong:

Requests made to recreationists and tourism:

  • Educate your clients about their responsibilities.
  • Be more organized.
  • Know the carrying capacity of our region.
  • Don’t surrender our uniqueness.
  • Show us you understand the true costs of the public using our land.

Requests made to land owners and the forest producers:

  • Stay in dialogue with us.
  • Give us access to your land when we deserve it.
  • Tell us how best to engage with you.
  • Respect what we bring to this community.

Facilitation Type:

Civic Dialogue

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