The Maine Humanities Council has offered Civic Reflection programs for both the general public and professional groups in Maine for the past three years. “Civic reflection” is the practice of reading and discussing short texts that raise fundamental questions about our life in community and the activities that nourish that life: giving, serving, associating and leading. The project aims to improve relationships between colleagues and neighbors, while deepening participants’ understanding and commitment to civic activity.
Civic Reflection projects are tailored to meet the needs of specific audiences. One example is the Civic Reflection discussion held annually since 2004 among members of the Bangor City Council in conjunction with the Bangor Public Library. This group has included not only city councilors, but also members of the planning and school boards, and senior municipal employees.
The nature of a city council is to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. While this is never easy, officials who have taken time to get to know each other better, and to reflect on their shared beliefs about their city and their work, may then be able to work together more effectively, even under stress.
Geoffrey M. Gratwick, a Bangor city councilor and former chair of the MHC Board, described a recent meeting of “Cit Lit.”
“We started out going around the table with introductions, telling of something ‘other people didn’t know about you.’ Previously hidden passions of white water canoeing, World War II history, local community work, and genomics are not now so hidden. Around-the-table revelations are wonderful and do as much as anything to bring the group to a common space for talking.”
The text was Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a book for young readers chosen for the Bangor Public Library’s Bangor Reads project for 2006. The story is about the forced relocation of a small group of African Americans from Malaga Island off Phippsburg in 1912 to improve the vista for a new hotel—all in the name of economic development.
“We started off with racism then and now, both along the coast and in Bangor,” Geoff said.
The discussion delved into stories that directly related to Bangor and the councilors’ work. “Despite distinct progress, issues of race, class, economic opportunity and education (or lack thereof ) are still very much with us.”
It is not always common to have issues as relevant as these out on the table in an informal and collegial setting. Geoff has been a great proponent for the value of Civic Reflection in helping people discuss and consider their own ideas and those of others. Civic Reflection sessions provide a valuable step in the process of decision-making.