A first hand account of attending a Make Shift Coffee House
By Christina Oddleifson, Newry, ME
If there is one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s that incivility in America is having a profound and negative impact on our democracy.
According to the just released 2018 annual poll “Civility in America” by Weber Shandwick, 93% of the population believes that incivility is rampant and most see it as a major societal problem that is getting worse. If all that negative energy is keeping you up at night, you’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, worry about the future of our country has replaced money, work and healthcare as the number one source of stress in the U.S.
Following the contentious 2016 US presidential election, Craig Freshley, a professional facilitator and owner of Good Group Decisions in Brunswick, Maine, decided that something had to be done. So he launched a unique grassroots effort called the “Make Shift Coffee House” aimed at bringing people together for “good old fashioned discourse.”
The idea is simple – create a relaxed and welcoming space with music, food, and coffee where participants can simply listen and learn from those with opposing points of view. “I set out to create a face-to-face place where the only goal is for people to understand where someone else is coming from” said Freshley, “no persuasion or agreement, just understanding.” Since January 2017 he has donated his time and expertise to facilitate over fifteen coffee houses around Maine with the help of local volunteer organizers. The coffee houses have been well attended and Freshley seems to have tapped into a deep desire by many to move beyond the rancor.
Curious about just what happens when you bring liberals and conservatives together, I decided to attend a Make Shift Coffee House in the small town of Freedom, Maine. Settled by a Revolutionary war soldier in the late 18th century, and incorporated as Freedom in 1812, this farm town in Maine’s mid-coast region with a population of 700 people, seemed a perfect place for this more modern grassroots movement. On the way to Freedom, I noticed that the road first runs through the town of Unity, home to Maine’s iconic Common Ground fair. I hoped this was a good sign.
On a February night when the temperatures dipped into the single digits, some 46 people turned out at the local grange hall, attracted by posters that read “When should the Government hand out money? How do you feel about entitlement programs, military spending, corporate tax breaks and foreign aid?”
Entering the local Grange is like stepping back in time. The well-worn wooden floors spoke of the dances, meetings and discussions held over generations in this space. Granges used to be found throughout agricultural communities in the US and provided a needed place for people to connect with each other. While the Grange in Freedom is still used for events, many are being shuttered for lack of use or interest in modern day America.
Shortly after arriving, people began filling the community kitchen in the basement and a crowd formed around the table of home-made pastries, coffee and snacks. As Freshley explained to me, the coffee house format creates a relaxed environment that helps break the ice. The “make shift” part of the name refers to the fact that these are pop up events being held in libraries, schools, granges and other community spaces, using whatever resources are available. The word “shift” also refers to shifting one’s perspective.
Participants at the event in Freedom were mostly middle aged and older, but a few young families and young adults were also in attendance. I struck up a conversation with a woman from nearby Belfast who had helped organize two coffee houses in her community. She said they had learned a lot after the first one, which had been largely attended by Democrats. After that they reached out to members of the Waldo County GOP. With their help, the second meeting was more politically balanced. Like me, she hoped that a variety of opinions would be voiced in Freedom.
After chatting with each other, the crowd climbed the steep stairs to the main hall, where comfortable seats from a former movie theater were arranged in a communal fashion. A three piece local band was playing in the background and standing lamps gave it the feel of someone’s living room. I sat next to a young man named Mark, who had moved to the nearby town of Liberty from Maryland the year before. He spoke of how powerless and sad he had been feeling about our current state of affairs. He had come to Maine to build a life in a close knit community, and to develop his craft as a wood worker.
Craig started off the discussion by going over the ground rules. We were not there to persuade or argue with each other. We were there to ask questions and hear what was important to the other side. All that was required was a willingness to listen and a desire to understand. He started by asking what people think the role of the government should be when it came to handouts. He quoted a recent study that showed that three times as many Republicans than Democrats believe that government should not provide financial assistance to people in need.
The first gentleman who spoke took issue with the word “handout” and thought it was too provocative. He quoted Plato on the importance of helping others. I had learned from speaking with his wife earlier that he was a college professor, and they had moved back to Freedom after being away for over twenty years.
This was followed by passionate opinions about how the federal government had taken power away from individuals, stifling responsibility and even creativity. One person spoke of how it made no sense to send tax money to Washington, only to have it returned through federal grants. “Why not leave it here and let local communities figure out how to use it?” he asked. “After all, they know more about their own community than the federal government.” Another person acknowledged that Maine gets more federal aid than it pays in taxes, and was being subsidized by a state like Massachusetts. “This just doesn’t seem right to me,” he added. One man quoted Dennis Prager, a conservative radio talk show host who said “the bigger the government the smaller the citizen.” This quote seemed to capture the sentiment of many in the room.
As far as helping those in need (one person quoted the bible, saying that only children and widows should be helped), most seemed to believe that help should be given to those who truly needed it – but not by an inefficient federal government.
Following these kinds of comments, one woman on the verge of tears, talked of how after facing two serious health care crises, her family would have been bankrupted if not for Obamacare. Another man shared how he had worked since he was nine years old and had been a carpenter all his life. Because he was allowed to deduct his business expenses on his tax return, this had lowered his taxable income which meant that he did not pay as much into social security. Now in his sixties, his social security check was just $500 a month and he did not qualify for additional assistance. He felt ashamed and discouraged.
I shared the experience of my own husband who was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis as a teenager. Despite that prognosis he worked hard as a chef in a physically demanding industry, sometimes with debilitating pain and despite losing his leg to related complications. Now in our 50’s, our out of pocket health care expenses are over $25,000 a year, and he takes a drug that is billed at over $4,000 a month.
Others pointed out that environmental issues, like the air pollution in Acadia National Park that comes from power plants and factories in the Mid-west and South, is outside of local control, just like health care.
At the break I was approached by a man who was a history teacher at a private Baptist high school. He said how sorry he was to hear of my husband’s struggle and how ludicrous it was that we were paying so much for health care. Earlier he had been one of the voices advocating for local control over spending. But when it came to health care he admitted he wasn’t so sure, and appreciated hearing my story. He said he was probably more Libertarian than Republican and mentioned that his own insurance co-payments were higher because of choices he had made (he was diabetic due to poor dietary choices). He was regretful, but thought it was fair that he should pay more because of it. “But we need to keep having events like these” he added “it’s good for me to hear these stories.”
Our conversation turned to seatbelt laws, the mandatory 55 mile an hour speed limit imposed by the Carter administration, and government regulation of dietary choices. I had to admit that he had a point – when does government go too far and relieve people of individual responsibility? What I saw as prudent regulations designed to minimize additional public expenditures (more taxpayer money is used to clean up crashes where people are not wearing seat belts, or for health care costs related to preventable obesity rates and environmental pollution), he saw as an infringement on personal responsibility.
After the break a woman asked, “Why do conservatives seem to always blame the victim for life circumstances they have no control over.” If her perception was wrong, she asked to be corrected. While this question wasn’t answered directly, it led to a discussion about racism. Michael, the Chair of the Waldo County GOP, spoke about the importance of seeing all people as part of the human race. That week he had published his first Op-ed in the local paper addressing a recent controversy in their town. A local member of the GOP committee had publicly given support to the Town Manager in Jackman, a man who adhered to an openly racist ideology. The town manager and his views had been a big news story in Maine. The Republican Party member in Waldo had not done enough research on the situation before he had given his support, and thought he was defending free speech. Michael wrote that this man was visibly shaken by the community reaction to his comments, and felt he should be forgiven. He also firmly stated that there was no room for racism in the Republican Party.
Patty, another GOP committee member, told me that “attacking people only makes them dig their heels in more”, and that we needed to stop making assumptions about other people’s intentions. She was looking forward to attending the next coffee house in Orono.
At times the conversation felt uncomfortable, but never disrespectful. Under the guidance of Craig Freshley’s professional and neutral facilitation it had focused on how and why people felt the way they do about an issue like government spending. There is no arguing with how someone’s life experiences influence how they feel.
Some may ask what the point of an event like a Make Shift Coffee House is if the goal is not to change someone’s mind. But the experience was an important reminder that face to face conversation away from the safety of a computer screen, coupled with the willingness to respectfully listen, can be a powerful agent for change. It opens the door to potential compromise, challenges people to examine their own perspective, and can lead to workable solutions.
When I left the meeting to head toward the coast, I took an alternative route and drove through the town of Hope.