Guest columnist Emily “Lemy” Coffin: Division in Northampton: The only way out is through

  • Northampton city hall File photo

Published: 9/25/2021 8:02:05 AM

There is no doubt that tension is present in Northampton right now. With elections on the horizon the question is, what do we do about it?

As a family therapist who gets called into families’ lives in some of the most high-stakes moments they have faced, I have some insights to offer.

First, a reframe. When tension and conflict are present, it can feel unbearable and painful. When I see high emotions and conflict, I see something else too: deep investment in the present and future conditions folks are living in.

And while conflict is division, it is also so much more. It means a group of people who have various complex relationships with one another, care enough to make their voices heard, even with possible social and emotional consequences. It means they have hope that things might change through voicing their grievances, and it means they feel they have agency and power in their relationships to facilitate that change. So, frustration, anger, division and conflict are actually not the worst things for a family or a community. Apathy is.

When we face conflict in our lives — as people, as parents, as partners, as young people — sometimes our instinct is to expect that disaster, chaos, or endings are on the horizon.

We all have lives to lead — getting food on the table, getting kids to school, meeting pressures in the workplace, or making whatever powers that be in our lives happy. Conflict feels antithetical to moving forward at times because it seems like it will be a disruption to what comes next. And so it can be pretty human to avoid conflict at all costs, because it seems that living life means putting one foot in front of the other and getting to the next thing on the to-do list. Especially if we think what is coming after conflict is disaster or an ending of some sort, which would really throw a wrench in moving through the to-do list.

And so, while it is counter intuitive, we actually need to embrace conflict sooner rather than later in whatever form it arrives. What we know is that strong emotions and opinions in relationships and in communities are actually a good thing because they facilitate growth and change. When proper space is not given, the outcomes are bad: it leads to repetitive repression or apathy in relationships, which leads to far more disruptive and harmful dynamics in the long term.

Similar to families, the city of Northampton has a job to do. There are potholes to fill, renovations to be made, conflicts between neighbors to be solved, and so much more. The instinct to keep things moving is human and self-protective.

But there can be a risk to prioritizing the to-do list above all else. Sometimes it leaves residents and even city councilors in a dilemma — Can I make my voice heard with the risk of slowing things down? Or do I refrain from saying something to keep the train moving down the tracks, trusting that the conductor will stop the train if needed? What if I see something the conductor doesn’t? Can I speak up? Or will I face too many consequences for slowing or stopping the train?

Self-doubt, confusion and frustration can creep in when faced with such a dilemma, which causes a standstill reaction. If this happens too frequently it can get worse — leading to hopelessness, withdrawal and a lack of agency. This causes people in relationships or communities to stop trying at all. But luckily that is not where some of us are right now.

My assessment of Northampton is actually that emotions running high is not a terrible thing, despite it being a bit painful. Because conflict and dissonance can create positive change with the right facilitation and support, and it is foundational to progress. If a choir all sang the same note, the performance would fall flat. Similarly, if everyone in government or our community is singing the same tune, voices are likely being left out.

I know there are candidates like myself ready to demonstrate the possibility and opportunity local government has to offer our residents. I believe in a Northampton where disagreement can be appreciated, welcomed, and appropriately channeled as a necessary part of the governing process.

We can do this, but the only way out is through.

Emily “Lemy” Coffin is a Northampton City Council candidate for Ward 1.

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