HALLOWELL — Arnold Stinson anticipated that he would be one of the only conservative voices at Tuesday’s Make Shift Coffee House event in the traditionally liberal city of Hallowell. The Richmond man sat at the front of the room containing about 80 people, wearing a pin on his vest showing his support of President Donald Trump.

Stinson spoke about how he returned to Maine in 2015 after living in South Dakota. He said the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, perhaps unpopular in the room, improved the state by “making people go to work.” He said any political party that supports giving incentives to those who are able-bodied but not working is perpetuating a number of social problems.

Stinson’s comments triggered a response from Sam Shain, an educator and musician from Hallowell. Shain said he believed most people wanted to work and those on unemployment were not “living the dream.”

During the exchange, Craig Freshley, moderator and program creator, asked about Shain’s and Stinson’s background. Stinson said grew up on a Richmond dairy farm, where he learned work ethic. When he moved to South Dakota, he saw people earning more money from unemployment benefits than working a job. Shain said he became aware of issues affecting people with disabilities and low-income families after working at the Spurwink School.

The gathering was the latest Make Shift Coffee House, which was created by Freshley because he felt a need for better understanding after the election of Trump. He said public discourse after the election had become “downright disrespectful.”

Tuesday’s event was the 40th Make Shift Coffee House event, which took place exactly three years after the first one in Brunswick. Freshley began the event by reminding attendees that the purpose of the event was “not to persuade each other,” but instead to understand why people think the way they do.

“Everyone has a very good reason for why they believe what they believe,” he said. “You might feel like you’re a minority in this room; you’re the person I want to hear from.”

Craig Freshley speaks during a Make Shift Coffee House event Tuesday night at Hallowell City Hall. Kennebec Journal photo by Sam Shepherd

The exchange between Stinson and Shain was an example of the premise at work; those disagreeing speaking candidly in an environment that isn’t charged.

Stinson, speaking to the Kennebec Journal during a break in the event, said the discourse at Tuesday’s meeting was “one-sided,” leaning more liberal than conservative. But he was initially interested in the events to to better understand the Democratic points of view, even if at times he thinks they are “loony.”

“One of the reasons I started to host these events is to help myself understand how people on the other side of the aisle are thinking,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out why (they) think this way.”

Stinson helped host two Make Shift Coffee House events, both of which brought relatively polar parties — students of Bowdoin College and residents of Richmond, together to speak about their opinions. Stinson said he was planning to become a facilitator for Make Shift Coffee House events.

Attendees identified climate change, drug use, and inequality as the most pressing current political issues at a Make Shift Coffee House event at the Hallowell City Hall. Before the event, people crowded around eight tables, enjoying refreshments and live music.

During the first part of the event, Freshley handed the microphone off to volunteers who gave their take on the “most critical issues that we face.” Examples included from addressing climate change, reducing drug-related crime, equity among all groups and instituting a national service requirement.

One attendee said the way we communicate, largely through the screens of televisions, phones and computers, is contributing to a polarized political environment where parties are using that growing divide to rile up supporters. That attendee said the Republican party was more effective in the spread of inflammatory information, though when Freshley said it could be both parties, he said it was an issue of all people.

After about an hour of discussion, Freshley labeled tables with themes from the discussion, allowing people to break into smaller, more specialized group conversations. During this time, Freshley sat away from the attendees and allowed the group to naturally “plant seeds” for future conversations with each other.

Mike Waters, of Hallowell, spent a portion of this period speaking with Stinson, despite being on the other side of the political spectrum. He said they spoke about experiences they both had working with Native American populations in the midwest and while Waters may not have agreed with Stinson’s viewpoints, he left the conversation understanding why Stinson believed what he did.

Moderator Craig Freshley, standing, addresses the 80 attendees at the Make Shift Coffee House on Tuesday at the Hallowell City Hall. Photo courtesy of Judy Feinstein

Waters said Make Shift Coffee House events could be effective in bringing the viewpoints together, but it would depend on the mix of people at the event. He said it was remarkable that Stinson showed up to Tuesday’s talk, stating that Hallowell wasn’t “exactly Trump country.”

“The fact that he came in and had a Trump (pin) on him and was willing to say what he wanted to say and listen to people, that shows a lot for him,” Waters said.

Waters said it would be interesting to hold Make Shift Coffee Houses in other Maine towns, like Wilton, which he said hold generally-opposite beliefs to those commonly held in Hallowell.

Freshley said he hoped people walked out of Tuesday’s event with “courage to talk to people that have different views.” He said Make Shift Coffee House can be a catalyst for better public policy, but it is only just the beginning.

“I think there’s a whole process of policy development; us making good decisions together as a society,” he said. “There are all kinds of things that contribute to good group decision making. Make Shift Coffee House (is at the beginning) of that spectrum. My hope is that it influences things downstream.”

Organizer Mary Kane said the turnout was higher than expected, and appreciate that some members of other communities joined the familiar faces in Hallowell. In reaction to Stinson’s comment about there being more liberal viewpoints, Kane said that Hallowell is a liberal community, so that was expected. She said it was great to have people like Stinson there to express other political opinions.

“The general mood was that people with strong liberal views were holding back (because) we wanted other people to be comfortable, not just the liberals in the room,” she said. “We could have started out with people complaining about Republicans and Trump but that wouldn’t have gotten us where we wanted to go.”

Organizer Judy Feinstein said the organizing group will likely plan another event to promote civil discourse, which could be another Make Shift Coffee House or another similar event.

“We don’t have anything specific planned and would be happy to hear from the community what they’d be interested in,” she said.


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