Craig Freshley moderates a Make Shift Coffee House discussion in Richmond in November 2019. Photo courtesy of James McCarthy

HALLOWELL — A political discussion is scheduled next week in Hallowell, but debating is not on the agenda.

At 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 14 area residents are invited to the Hallowell City Hall Auditorium to participate in a Make Shift Coffee House, moderated by Brunswick-based facilitator Craig Freshley, who created the events that have previously taken place in other parts of Maine, including Richmond. Attendees will discuss what they think the most critical political issues are today, what is most important to our local community and how their opinions on different issues are formed.

Freshley, who operates Good Group Decisions Inc., said he felt a need for better understanding after the politically-polarizing election of President Donald Trump. He said public discourse after Trump’s election was “downright disrespectful.”

“I have seen time and time again how most conflicts are caused by misunderstanding,” Freshley said. “I often say … disagreement is a good thing; the bad thing is when we fail to understand why the other feels the way they do.”

He hosted the first event in Brunswick in January 2017 and invited people from all over the political spectrum to participate in a discussion to clarify why they feel the way they feel. Freshley said people usually walk out of the event feeling the same way, but with a valuable understanding of why the so-called other side feels the way they do.

He said he doesn’t judge what is right or wrong during the event and lays out the ground rules as soon as the event starts. These events discourage debate and are geared to leave attendees with a better understanding of why people think the way they think.

“We set the tone early, … even way in advance,” Freshley said. “If you want to come to try to persuade people how right you are, stay home.”

Since that 2017 Brunswick discussion, there have been 39 events, a few of which were attended by members of an ad hoc group that organized next week’s Hallowell discussion. Organizer Mary Kane said she became interested in hosting an event after attending a conference focused on civility, leading to the Hallowell Listens discussion that took place in June 2019. After attending one of Freshley’s events, Kane thought it would be a good fit for Hallowell.

“We had a good turnout for (Hallowell Listens) and we felt we were ready to delve into something more complex,” she said. “(Freshley) is doing these things all over the state and is really enthusiastic about it.”

Freshley said the events have never spawned an argument, as some may have over the holiday dinner table. He said different views will always be a constant in the United State, so it is important to understand others’ views to create better bipartisan public policy.

“We are America, a place of different views; we are always going to have this,” Freshley said. “I think it’s idealistic and naïve to think that we will all agree.”

When asked why Hallowell was a good place for a Make Shift Coffee House event, Kane referenced a recent social media frenzy surrounding Slate’s Restaurant as an example of how Hallowell citizens, who were split in their response to the controversy, could communicate better. Further, she said that everyone can use more practice in communicating with those that have different viewpoints, instead of shutting those people out completely.

“There are plenty of people in our local area that aren’t thinking the same things,” Kane said. “There’s conflict everywhere.”

Local musician Sam Shain will perform live music and refreshments will be provided Tuesday.

The day after Hallowell’s discussion, on Jan. 15, Freshley will offer training at the Maine State Library for those interested in hosting and facilitating future Make Shift Coffee House events. Training for hosts is free, while facilitator training requires a $200 fee. Training begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 11:30 a.m. for hosts and 4:30 p.m. for facilitators.

Hosts will learn how to organize committees, how to promote the event, how to find adequate settings for the events and how to best set up the room and refreshments. Facilitators will learn the program’s rules and formatting, how to set a good tone for the meeting and how to handle difficult situations when they arise.

Freshley said facilitators could earn $500 for an event once trained. For more information, visit makeshiftcoffeehouse.com.

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