Politics aside: Leverett effort aims to bring residents together

 For the Gazette
Published: 4/14/2017 12:48:09 AM

LEVERETT — After last November’s election, the Leverett Peace Committee — created half a dozen years earlier but largely dormant recently — reawoke to a need to help bring townspeople together.

In the months since an early December gathering that drew 60 people to the town library as a way to foster dialogue, six subcommittees have been working on a variety of actions. The motivation has been not so much to stir political action, but to make sure that the roughly 2,000 people in this Amherst bedroom community are trying to bridge divisions and care for one another.

“We wanted to be positive,” says Barbara Tiner, one of five steering committee members. “We wanted to make sure our community felt safe.”

This included asking where were Muslims in town who people should be reaching out to, and how schoolchildren were doing with rising anxiety levels.

The initial meeting, says Paula Green, who along with her husband, Jim Perkins, is on the steering committee, was open to everyone in town — a town where Donald Trump won under 24.5 percent of the vote, second lowest in the county only to neighboring Shutesbury. A few of Trump’s supporters have turned out.

Whereas some towns have organized to work specifically on political objectives in the aftermath of the divisive national election, Leverett’s committee has focused on bridge-building in a town where there are few hangouts for residents to come together, says Green.

“We need to act on our commonalities,” she says. “The more connected we are, more we can take care of each other.” 

Among the activities planned by subcommittees focused on “bridging” and “schools and youth” are starting a townwide listserv to foster communication among residents, organizing community potlucks and maybe offering CPR training “so you know you can count on your neighbors,” Tiner says.

There’s also, beginning next month, a campaign of greeting people at the town’s transfer station with coffee, to “soften the culture of Leverett … to encourage people to be friendlier,” in a town where she says residents often don’t bother to say hello to one another.

The committees are also looking at the possibility of some kind of July 4 cookout or picnic, since Leverett doesn’t have any kind of general community-gathering event.

Beginnings 

When the committee first got started with events that brought guest speakers to town and had the National Priorities Project present an analysis of the town budget, said Perkins, “We encountered such resistance to any kind of community building, since people come here because they want to be back in the hollow and be left alone. But the effect of this election was bring out the countervailing need, where people want to be more connected.” 

There’s also a reading group, with people reading about the broader American community and different experiences, and efforts to work in the elementary school talking to pupils about acceptance of other people, with possible creation of a children’s chorus to build more cohesion there.

Local mural artist Judith Inglesias helped coordinate an art project, now on display at Leverett Library, with residents making small squares telling the immigration stories of their own families.

Another effort, planned for late this month, will be to foster a dialogue with Muslims from the lower Pioneer Valley, to offer support and foster understanding.

An environment subcommittee, meanwhile, has been sending letters to area legislators on state environmental campaigns, and also planning an outdoor action during a break in the April 29 annual town meeting, which coincides with a planned People’s Climate March.

There are other efforts, such as reaching across the political divide and reaching out to the immigrant community in Turners Falls. Members are trying to come up with a suitable name for the campaign that’s inclusive, like Leverett Together, Leverett Cares or The Leverett Connector.

The committee’s monthly meetings, which have consistently drawn about 50 members, have attracted people from Sunderland, Amherst, Shutesbury, Amherst, Pelham and Florence, interested in replicating the community-building effort, says Green. It could come in handy if, for example, there are federal budget cuts with serious implications on the state and local levels.

“If we can do this here and serve as a model for other towns, it will help us pull together and be resilient together if there’s truly a crisis,” she says, “because resilience will be needed ... as things get tighter.” 

Perkins adds, “There’s a general feeling that all this partisanship has become ridiculous, that we’re polarized way beyond all reason, where our interests across the population are so similar, yet we can’t even see our similarities because of the rhetoric. So we’re hoping to begin to break that down, to be able to talk about what we have in common and what we can work toward, by finding a language that’s not polarizing or partisan.” 

The committee, which plans to meet at Town Hall April 20 with a 6 p.m. potluck dinner and an effort to  broaden the effort, is trying to “find a place where it’s more important to be a good neighbor than to be the voter of one person or another,” says steering group member Pat Fiero. “So we can get back to basics. It’s about getting back to basics.”


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