A path to understanding at Make Shift Coffee House

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Photo by Emily Appleton

The first Make Shift Coffee House took place at Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick in January. Another is planned at Patten Free Library on Saturday.

BATH — Borrowing from an inarguably divisive moment in our country’s history, one might ask, “why can’t we all just get along?”

Of course, there is no easy answer to that question. But Brunswick’s Craig Freshley is pretty much submerged in it and related conundrums on a daily basis. His company, Good Group Decisions Inc., helps organizations resolve conflicts, nurture collaboration, and find resolutions to the sorts of issues and decision-making that can inhibit growth.

Now, Freshley is using his facilitating skills to help us all — voters, neighbors, co-workers, teammates, friends and family — find common ground in these politically charged times. His first Make Shift Coffee House, entitled “Questions for the Other Side,” took place in January, drawing nearly 70 people to Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. The goal was to encourage dialogue between even the most extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Rosalie Paul, of Brunswick, attended the first event at Curtis.

“Calling people together expressly to bring up differing points of view for respectful discussion is important,” she said. “I’m grateful to Craig for his skill and patience in mediating tough dialogue. These days we find ourselves divided politically, and are apt to make assumptions about people who may have other traditions, other expectations.”

After the 2016 election, Freshley found himself feeling upset at how divided we are as a country.

“I thought, what can I do? There is so much fear, anger and hate on both sides, and I really wanted to do something about that,” he said. “Facilitating discussion is something I can do; I have seen in my work how building understanding works to resolve conflicts. If only I better understood where you are coming from, I might not dislike you so much; in fact, I might not be able to dislike you, if I understood where you are coming from.”

What gets us to understanding?

“First, being open minded: If my mind is made up and I have no desire to understand you, it’s not going to happen. A desire to understand is necessary. Next is a willingness to listen, a genuine desire to listen.” Freshley explains that our upbringing and environment shapes us, and our beliefs, and peeling away that history and those layers enables us to reach a point of understanding.

He adds that humility is also key. “Being able to admit that I might be wrong, that I might not know what’s right. It goes along with open mindedness.”

Bath’s Patten Free Library will host two Make Shift Coffee Houses, on March 11 and April 29, with Freshley again facilitating conversation that might help us all get along. Saturday’s event is entitled, “How Do I Know What to Believe?” and will guide participants in examining their own belief systems and biases.

Paul thinks that’s a ripe topic. “Thinking about what we believe sounds like a very good approach, though what we believe is fraught with complexities of interpretation and of media choice, and media accuracy,” she said.

Saturday’s event will have a slightly different feel than the initial coffee house in January, with a specific focus: What we believe, and why we believe it. The discussion will also include the Internet age of information dissemination, and the unfortunate ascendancy of “fake news.”

“We all have choices, about what news we listen to. What influences what I believe today? My religion, morality, my values; these things allow me to see certain news sources and embrace them, and reject others. The discussion will allow us to try to understand where each other is coming from, in terms of beliefs, and where we get our information,” he said.

Freshley is working hard to achieve a balanced demographic at each event. “Liberals and Democrats tend to show up more at events around here in general, and so I really specifically encourage conservatives and Republicans to come,” he said, noting that equal representation is what will guarantee robust dialogue.

An event in conservative Lewiston will likely draw more from that side, and in that case, Freshley will work to recruit from the Democratic/progressive citizenry.

He is a big believer in using things that bring people together, such as music and food, as tools in building discourse. “Music and food helps us see each other as people,” he said. Saturday’s event will begin at 6:30 p.m., with live music, mingling and munchies, followed by the discussion taking place from 7:30 to 9 p.m., followed again by music, snacks and “chit chat” until 10 p.m.

The April 29 coffee house at the Patten Free Library is entitled, “Exploring our Political Divide,” and will examine why political differences are so fraught, and why we are so divided.

Freshley will soon announce a coffee house event in Lewiston, and has interest in Bowdoinham, Augusta, Bangor, and other locales. “I’m open to requests,” he said. “People should feel free to contact me if they’d like to see one take shape in their community.”

For more information, visit makeshiftcoffeehouse.com, or call 729-5607.

Lorry Fleming is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She can be reached at: lorryfleming@gmail.com

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