Who we are
The purpose of a Make Shift Coffee House is to help people understand each other's political views, and hang out. We are focused on improving the quality of political dialogue in Maine and then applying what we have learned across the country.
Politically, Maine looks a lot like the country as a whole: we are very evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and that divide tends to align with rural and urban areas. Yet Maine is a relatively small state with a total population less than several US cities; and our town and city governments are very accessible as is our citizen-based state legislature. We feel we can make a difference here and establish a proof-of-concept for others to replicate.
There are many, many efforts to improve dialogue across differences and improve civic collaboration. In the grand spectrum of all activities that contribute to good public policy, we know our place. We have our niche. We help people understand each other’s political views.
Make Shift Coffee House models how to talk across the political divide and inspires people to try the tools, techniques, and attitudes that they experience at our events. Via experiential learning Make Shift Coffee House builds capacity for people to find common ground and work on solutions in other arenas such as at a Town Meeting or at the State House. Rather than a formal workshop that trains people how to talk across the political divide or trains people how to facilitate such conversations, we lead by example with a low barrier to entry. We work hard to recruit left-leaning people, right-leaning people, and all kinds of people who reflect our politically diverse state.
At a Make Shift Coffee House you actually have conversations with people who think differently than you. This lays the foundation for more conversations and for actually working together on specific issues.
Where we are headed
In all our Make Shift Coffee Houses to date we have stayed true to our mission and at the same time have experimented with different formats, ever trying to perfect a model that is easily replicable and highly effective in a variety of settings. We think we’re pretty close.
Here are a few things we are focusing on going forward.
While we have consistently solicited comments and feedback about our events, we are now being more deliberate about measuring widespread community impact. For instance, before we recently launched a series of Make Shift Coffee Houses in Yarmouth, Maine we conducted a survey of all people who serve on town committees and boards and who receive the town’s official newsletter. We asked questions about general levels of civility and cross-political understanding in the community; some of the questions worded exactly like questions in national Weber-Shandwick Civility in America surveys. After several Make Shift Coffee Houses we will conduct the same survey again and assess changes. We are about to launch a similar survey and series in Belfast, Maine and plan to do this in other communities also.
In October we are taking a bus load of Bowdoin College students to a Grange Hall in rural Richmond, Maine. We will have a Make Shift Coffee House there. A week later we are taking a bus load of Richmond, Maine residents to Bowdoin College for a Make Shift Coffee House. A core group of Bowdoin students and Richmond residents will participate in both, although both are open to the public of course. We are doing this because we know that a highly effective way for people to understand each other’s political views is for them to hear people from different geographic areas; taking liberal people to a conservative area and/or taking conservative people to a liberal area. We have high hopes for the Bowdoin-Richmond experience and plan to do this type of thing more in the future.
Adding facilitator capacity
The biggest current constraint to conducting more Make Shift Coffee House’s is Craig’s capacity. He is simply not available to facilitate more than one or two Make Shift Coffee Houses per month. The key to doing more events is to have more facilitators. We are not interested in training inexperienced people “how to facilitate;” but rather we want to train experienced facilitators in "the Make Shift way." We are raising funds and working to bring on additional facilitators.
This space is plenty big enough for all of us doing this type of work; and plenty room for more! We are very generous about referring people to other efforts via our Resources Page and social media posts. And we have contributed cash and expertise to many other efforts. Balanced with our need to stay focused on our mission, we are always seeking opportunities to collaborate with others.
Encouraging people to “get in the room”
We do a lot to reduce advance anxiety about attending a Make Shift Coffee House. We know that for many people it takes tremendous courage to “talk to the other side” face-to-face. From our hallmarks such as free admission, free food, free coffee, and live music to our advance messaging which always emphasizes that these are not arguments or debates; we are ever diligent about providing “easy entry.” We meet with and give assurances to community leaders in advance of events. We make personal phone calls. We attend local meetings to explain what a Make Shift Coffee House is like; and that “you won’t be attacked or made to speak.” Yet the most effective encouragement is when someone hears from someone who attended one: “That was really great and no one yelled at anyone!” For this reason our focus is to keep delivering high quality Make Shift Coffee Houses so the word spreads; and be increasingly persistent about keeping in mind the person who wouldn’t naturally engage in such conversations. That’s the person we want!
How we are organized
Make Shift Coffee House is a nonprofit educational initiative but rather than establish a new charitable nonprofit we have partnered with a fiscal sponsor -- Friends of the Maine State Library -- to receive charitable donations on our behalf. Their board of directors provides fiscal oversight.
Programmatic advice is provided by the Make Shift Coffee House Advisory Board, co-chaired by the head of the Maine Republican Party and the head of the Maine Democratic party. The board is comprised of 20 people with political, geographic, gender, and age diversity. Board members serve as volunteers.
Administrative functions and services such as the website, newsletter, materials, and event coordination and promotion are provided by Good Group Decisions, a 2-person consulting company owned by Make Shift Coffee House founder Craig Freshley. Like the fiscal sponsorship arrangement, this partnership also makes good use of already-existing infrastructure to get the work done. Craig and Good Group Decisions have substantially subsidized the Make Shift Coffee House effort to date. All social media and many other functions are done by volunteer effort.
Each Make Shift Coffee House is organized locally by a volunteer host committee. Local host responsibilities include securing a venue, providing free food and coffee, arranging live music, and local promotion. If fees are required for room rental, food, or musicians, such fees are paid by the local host. Local host volunteers also work hard to promote the event locally, set up the room and greet people as they arrive, and do all clean up. In some cases the local host is an institution such as a college or university. Make Shift Coffee House does not charge local hosts, no matter who they are, for bringing a Make Shift Coffee House to their community.