Arnold Stinson is a conservative Republican. He lives in Richmond, where he grew up on a dairy farm. And from the day his father yanked him out of Head Start after discovering it was “a government program,” he’s believed that you should get where you’re going in life by way of your own bootstraps.

Yet there Stinson stood Tuesday evening in the crowded Smith Union at Bowdoin College, rubbing elbows with kids less than half his age who see the world through a lens very different from his.

“My great uncle was a graduate of this college and he had very liberal beliefs,” Stinson said, bemusement in his eyes. Looking around, he added, “This college hasn’t changed putting out the same type of people.”

Fighting words?

Not even close.

Welcome to Make Shift Coffee House, a grassroots effort to reduce the rancor in our politics through the disarmingly simple process of talking – and listening – to one another. If only for a couple hours, it’s a respite from the name-calling, finger-pointing and overall enmity that have come to define these oh-so-polarized times.

Craig Freshley, a Brunswick-based professional mediator and meeting facilitator, founded the group in early 2017 for one simple reason.

“The 2016 election,” Freshley said.

It wasn’t just that Maine and the rest of the country were split down the middle by their ballot choices. It was what Freshley calls “the level of meanness in our discourse. I was like, ‘We’ve got a problem here. This is not the America I grew up in.”

And so, two months after the election, he decided to call a meeting in a rented room at his local public library. He enlisted friends to bring coffee and snacks, even brought in a musician to lighten the atmosphere.

Most importantly, he made it a point to invite not just the like-minded, but people from across the political spectrum.

“I had to put some effort into it,” Freshley said. “I have to work harder to recruit conservatives and Republicans. And so, I do.”

His goal: Following an agreed-upon set of ground rules, get people to talk about not just how they see the world, but also why they see it that way. Prod them to explain how their life stories shaped their belief systems, to draw a line from their current political philosophy all the way back to the defining moments that made them who they are. And if you’re not speaking, listen hard to the person who is.

It works.

Last week, Freshley went to Washington, D.C., to receive an American Civic Collaboration Award, or “CIVVY,” at the 2019 National Conference of Citizenship.

As the award citation put it, “Make Shift Coffee House has mastered the art of bringing people together across divides … Founder Craig Freshley has created a model that can be used by other locales to create civic dialogue and foster empathy.”

Tuesday’s gathering, the 38th held across Maine in almost three years, was actually the second half of a two-session collaboration between Bowdoin College and the rural town of Richmond, population just under 3,500, located 20 miles northwest of the college.

Working with Bowdoin’s What Matters program, Freshley arranged for more than a dozen Bowdoin students to travel last month by van to Richmond’s Enterprise Grange hall, where they were greeted by a group of almost 50 folks from Richmond, all recruited via the grange and the Richmond Town Republican Committee. Before riding up Interstate 295, the students first learned about the history of Richmond – a place they might otherwise never see during their four years at Bowdoin.

The topic for that night: What does it mean to be an American?

“I think it’s such a great thing, rather than make assumptions about other people’s perspectives, to be able to hear from them first-hand and understand where they’re coming from,” said Allie Pizzino, a Bowdoin freshman from Florida who made the trip.

On Tuesday, a dozen or so Richmond residents accepted the invitation to continue the dialogue at Bowdoin – as foreign a location to many of them as Richmond had been for the students. The focus this time: What is the role of American government?

Freshley began by laying down the ground rules: Speak from your experience. Listen to understand. Everyone gets a turn. No one criticizes. Neutral facilitation. And if you like what you see and hear, share the experience with others.

Stinson, whose dairy farmer father “hated government programs” enough to put the kibosh on his Head Start enrollment, was among the first to take the microphone.

“The major role of government is to keep its inhabitants safe,” Stinson said, his booming voice stopping student passers-by in their tracks as they leaned over the railing of a nearby balcony to listen.

“It is not government’s role to take care of us,” Stinson said. “It should not be their role to give us anything. They should protect us and we work for (the rest).”

Next, a young woman rose to talk about the need to “level the playing field,” particularly for those who lack the education, housing and other resources so critical to upward mobility. Coaxed by Freshley to explain what makes her feel that way, she told the crowd that she’s worked with Hispanic immigrants in the restaurant industry.

“They are some of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met,” she said. “Yet their service often goes unnoticed or deliberately unappreciated – despite the fact that they are the bedrock of our country both in service and in population.”

And so it went for the next hour.

A woman who grew up in northern Maine lamented that “respect is not something that is taught to our children anymore.”

A young man from Bowdoin said government’s role is not just to protect us from shoddily constructed buildings and dangerously neglected roads, but also to ensure that “all of us have opportunities to be happy and to thrive.”

“My family lived in Section 8 housing when I was little and I feel like that was an important part of my beliefs around this,” he said. “I know what it feels like to be supported by the government.”

Finally, striving gamely to stay on schedule, Freshley directed the audience of about 80 to disperse into small table groups for deeper dives into six themes that had emerged from the general discussion: safety, morality, child raising, freedom, accountability and equal opportunity.

“Choose someone who you have heard talk so far and go and ask them a question,” he suggested. “This is a precious opportunity to understand each other’s political views. I’m encouraging you to take advantage of it.”

For almost another hour, the conversations reverberated across the large student lounge. Old and young, rural and urban, conservative and liberal, they traded their stories, listened intently while others spoke, even discovered  common ground.

But here’s the remarkable part. Not once was a voice raised in anger. No one took offense, at least outwardly, to what someone else had said. Political hot buttons went unpushed – notably, not once did anyone so much as utter the name Donald Trump.

Freshley, well aware that he can’t grow this movement alone, is now seeking people interested in becoming paid facilitators for more coffee houses all over Maine. The money will come through donations – while not yet a nonprofit in its own right, Make Shift Coffee House can solicit financial support through an affiliation with the nonprofit Friends of Maine State Library.

Fran Barry, the woman from northern Maine who worried about kids not showing enough respect these days, now lives in Harpswell. She’d never set foot on the Bowdoin campus before – she actually got lost looking for the student union. But she thought it important for her to come with her 14-year-old son, Richard, a freshman at Harpswell Coastal Academy, a six-year-old charter school.

Now, as the gathering broke up, Barry pronounced it an evening well spent.

“There’s civility here,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncivility and unkindness in this country right now and we need to stop that. People need to be kind to each other again.”

One coffee house at a time.


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