Northampton Connects and The Privatization of Public Dialogue
Harrison Greene and Will Meyer
New York Times columnist David Brooks loves “civility.” In 2011, he wrote that, “Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.” More recently, in a column called “Understanding Student Mobbists,” whose behavior he believes “combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail,” he elevates “empathy” as an “essential character trait.” He uses this column not to “psychoanalyze them but to try to understand where [the ‘student mobbists’] are coming from.” In Brooks’ view, “how citizenship is supposed to work” is as follows: “You bring different perspectives and expertise to the table. You reduce passion and increase learning.”
This is, in a nutshell, the premise of Northampton Connects, a “new forum for community dialogue” created by Dennis Bidwell and Stan Schapiro. Dennis Bidwell is the Ward 2 City Councilor in Northampton, and before that he was on the board of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce. He also runs a consulting business, Bidwell Advisors, that has done work for Smith College in the past. Stan Schapiro is, according to The Gazette, a “clinical social worker and behavioral health consultant.” Schapiro was also on the 2017 “Committee to Elect Dennis Bidwell.”
In a joint column for our local paper of record, Schapiro and Bidwell say that one of the reasons they started Northampton Connects is because “[business owners] sometimes feel misunderstood and targeted,” especially after the community resisted Chief Kasper’s proposal to install police operated surveillance cameras.
Shoestring co-editors Will Meyer and Harrison Greene attended Northampton Connects’ first community dialogue that took place in Florence on April 3rd. About eighty or so middle-aged to older white people, save for a handful that didn’t meet that profile, filed into the community room at JFK middle school where the event took place. A panel “representing diverse points of view and backgrounds” was compiled for the event. It included the following: Rabbi Justin David – Congregation B’nai Israel, Booker Bush – member of the Human Rights Commision, Jonathan Goldman – the youngest member of the state Democratic Committee and co-founder of the Right to Immigration Institute (Goldman gave $50 to Bidwell’s reelection campaign), Peter Ives – former pastor with First Churches in Northampton (also on the “Committee to Elect Dennis Bidwell”), Nancy Cowen – Owner of Happy Valley Gifts, Judy Herrell – owner of Herrell’s Ice Cream, and Pastor Steph Smith of Cathedral in the Night.
From the onset, Schapiro set the tone: “Our goal is to create interactions where people can talk to and listen to each other with respect. Northampton Connects grew out of a community meeting last October. A large part of that community meeting was devoted to people’s concerns, one way or the other, about the nature of the camera debate downtown and what could be done to encourage more respectful conversations about contentious topics, especially amongst people who may disagree.”
Panelists were given the following awkward prompt: “share a story that illustrates something [they] love about downtown Northampton, and what needs to be done to ensure that it’s welcoming to all.” Bush, a Springfield doctor and the only panelist of color, told the audience a story of how he feared he was being “solicited” when a young man sat down to talk with him at a local cafe. (It all worked out when he realized the college student was just making conversation with one of the few other people of color in town). He followed up by saying, “I love walking in Northampton. But I have to spend a few minutes deciding who I’m going to give money to when I walk around. I’ve got to decide which side of the street I’m going to walk down because I want to avoid some people on the street and I like seeing other people on the street. That’s inconvenient that I have to do that.”
Much of the panel discussion focussed on the issues of houselessness and addiction, which despite being very different issues, were often conflated. It should go without saying that many who are experiencing houselessness are not addicts of any kind; and likewise that many who are addicts are not experiencing houselessness. Despite the fact that the organizers said they considered different venues, the panel took place in a location that was likely inaccessible to those who were being talked about. JFK school is about three and a half miles from downtown. While reasonable bus service is available, curfew for shelters is often at five-thirty. The panel started at seven.
“I think there are some misconceptions about business owners…” Nancy Cowen, the owner of Happy Valley, said after implying that substance abuse, not housing, is the root cause of houseless peoples’ problems, since drug users (who for the purposes of her story are majority houseless) are “serial evictees.” She attempted to finish her remarks with a flourish, saying, “I just want you to know we’re not greedy and we care about other people.” Later that evening Judy Herrell echoed the sentiment that business owners care, saying, “A lot of communities are sort of being targeted. And laws are being passed that they can’t be on the street. And do we know how Northampton became this more inclusive place? Is it stuff that the Chamber did? Is it something that occured because of people that own the businesses?” Business owners, for their part, have been silent as the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Northampton Association have worked tirelessly to first: remove benches from downtown (half of which were put back), second: attempted unsuccessfully to install police surveillance cameras in the downtown business district and, third: have taken part in publishing two disturbing surveys, one of which suggests further criminalization as an answer to the so-called ‘panhandling issue.’ (Happy Valley, according to the Chamber’s ‘Business Directory,’ is not a member of the Chamber; Herrell’s is.)
“We just want her to talk about the cookies!” Herrell exclaimed as Cowan was about to pass the mic. So, she told “the cookie story.” “I’m the ‘peace on the street lady’ where I live,” Cowan explained. “One of the main benches happens to be right in front of Happy Valley. Because it’s the only bench that has a shade tree up there too. So it’s the only place people can get out of the sun. There’s certain times of the month where the behavior’s fairly aggressive because the checks come in and the drug dealers come in, and that kind of thing. And I go down and I go, ‘OK let’s have peace on the street.’ And if that doesn’t work I always have cookies in the store. And I bring out the cookies. And I start passing the cookies around to everybody. Because it’s not possible to curse and fight and carry on when some gray haired lady is feeding you cookies.” Herrell chimed in: “It works like a charm!”
Rabbi David said that “The serious reflection for me is who is visible downtown and who is invisible.” He went on to speak about his experience going to meetings organized by the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center and learning more about the lives of immigrant restaurant workers in the community. He added that “Northampton feels exceptional to me. At the same time there is nothing exceptional about the structural inequalities that exist in Northampton.” Pastor Steph spoke to “the two different worlds that are sometimes colliding” and exist in the same town.
Schapiro reflected on the event in an email to The Shoestring. “The people in attendance represent[ed] somewhat of a diversity of experience and perspectives about downtown Northampton,” he said. He added that, “Audience discussions following the panel involved a great deal of sharing and listening to the experiences of each person.” Schapiro highlighted the resonance of Rabbi David’s comments: “Numerous people shared that they thought of downtown in new ways after the meeting. Some said that they had never given much thought before to all the people who work behind the scenes in restaurants and cafes.” He elaborated, “If we can change the perspective of one person at a time, we can change the world.”
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“I love walking in Northampton. But I have to spend a few minutes deciding who I’m going to give money to when I walk around. I’ve got to decide which side of the street I’m going to walk down because I want to avoid some people on the street and I like seeing other people on the street. That’s inconvenient that I have to do that.”
Bidwell spoke to the event’s purpose, saying “Other public meetings are set up more to accommodate advocacy…” And Schapiro added that “Our goal is to welcome all values and all points of view. We realize this is a work in progress. For instance, we reached out to many in our community who either could not or did not choose to participate tonight.”
The Shoestring was able to reach three people who were asked to participate but didn’t.
“I felt like the forum was created to address business owners feelings about the pressure they were receiving,” said Rose Bookbinder, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center and Jobs with Justice. “And those that have been in power – political or economic – felt that for the first time in a while people were speaking up.”
She continued, “White people who do have privilege think that if you’re nice and you negotiate you get things, but it’s a very different reality for people of color and people in poverty — that’s not how they’ve been able to win things in this country.” Bookbinder went on to reference this point in the context of the Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 60’s, as well as in abolitionist struggles.
Bookbinder elaborated on why she turned down the offer to participate, saying, “I didn’t want to participate because I didn’t want to legitimize the notion that community conversations are going to change systemic injustices in our society.” Diana Sierra, a Smith professor and an organizer with the Workers’ Center, also weighed in. “Political dialogue can be effective but when it’s aimed at giving real decision-making power to those who are most affected,” she said. “But this platform assumes that the problem is a lack of dialogue between groups, instead of unequal access to resources and power. While these spaces appear to be neutral, they are not because not every participant has the same access to resources to share, let alone implement their political perspective.”
Both organizers also weighed in on why a forum like Northampton Connects doesn’t meet their criteria as an effective political approach. “The Workers’ Center has worked with City Council, sometimes that goes well and sometimes we turn to other tactics,” Bookbinder said. Likewise, Sierra commented on the Workers’ Center’s capacity, saying that they “prioritize forums that build power for the most affected.”
In an email to The Shoestring, Sarah Field, a vocal surveillance camera critic, who also turned down an invitation to participate, commented, “Any time there is a focus on engaging in ‘civil discourse’ about a given issue without an analysis of how power structures such as class, race, gender, and positional authority are already shaping the discourse about that issue, the outcome is likely to replicate those power structures.” She continued, “This is a particular concern when the people shaping the conversation are people who hold disproportionate amounts of power and have not done their own work to understand this.”
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“I didn’t want to participate because I didn’t want to legitimize the notion that community conversations are going to change systemic injustices in our society.”
[/perfectpullquote]“The purpose of Northampton Connects seems to me to be wildly misguided,” Field said. In her email, she points to the press release for the event that states that Northampton Connects was a response to the “polarizing tone present in some of the debate.” “Rather than listening to and engaging with the actual concerns of the community members who were speaking passionately about this public policy issue,” Field said, “Bidwell and his friends focused on the way in which people spoke about the issue. (I would also argue, as someone who was present at most of those meetings, that their representation of the tone was greatly mischaracterized, but that is beside the point.)” She describes this as “tone policing: a focus on not what was said but how it was said.” She continued, “[tone policing] is particularly egregious in the absence of an analysis of power and an understanding of who defines ‘acceptable’ or ‘civil’ speech.” Field points out that “In this case, and given that it was predominantly cis-men telling a group of predominantly women and nonbinary folks that we were being ‘naive, irrational, or emotional,’ it felt like a particularly gendered critique.”
Field pointed to a model she sees as an effective way to have discussions. “I would contrast Bidwell’s discussion format with the transformative circles model used in the youth-led Pa’lante program in Holyoke,” she said. “This model acknowledges that we live within structures of oppression, and provides a model for engaging in discussion processes that lead toward healing and transformation. The circle process is facilitated largely by youth of color, and makes space for personal experience and emotional responses to oppressive systems, rather than encouraging participants to suppress emotions in the name of ‘civility.’”
The event was facilitated by Paula Green, a psychologist, international peace activist, and founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. The Karuna Center has facilitated “dialogue and conflict transformation” between Leverett liberals and Kentucky conservatives, Israelis and Palestinians, and over thirty conflicts spanning the globe. According to its website, Karuna’s “programs have directly engaged a wide range of stakeholders—from grassroots communities, to the halls of parliament.” After going through the bios of their facilitators, trainers, staff, and Board members, it wasn’t hard for The Shoestring to spot connections to government groups like the State Department, USAID, the FBI, Homeland Security, the UN, and the ominously mentioned “other government groups.” This is not unusual. To the contrary, Karuna and many of the groups it’s associated with—such as Inclusive Security, Collaborative Learning Projects, and CM Partners—are genuine peace builders throughout the world. The catch, of course, is that they are often building peace on the terms of U.S. state interests. Which isn’t unlike how Northampton Connects is creating dialogue on the terms—and quite possibly for the benefit—of downtown business owners.
The emergence of Northampton Connects can be understood as a privatization—or an enclosure—of the civic discussion around Northampton politics. With its emphasis on ‘the polarizing tone,’ it seeks to regulate what type of political speech is acceptable or ‘civil’ and what types are not. Further, by creating a forum designed with business owners’ feelings in mind—and including no workers or houseless people on the panel, Northampton Connects misses the fundamental point that politics aren’t about feelings or cookies, but instead, about power. While it’s unclear if the intent of Northampton Connects will change, Schapiro says that “we expect to continue this conversation on the same topic with a much greater diversity of people.” He hopes to also change the location and time of day to allow more people to participate.
After the event, Bidwell asked Will to have a “generosity of spirit” in covering it. We left with the question: If Bidwell isn’t re-elected, will he get a plum newspaper gig (with The Gazette, of course) and write a column called “Understanding City Council Mobbists”?