In Norman Rockwell’s classic painting, “Freedom of Speech”, a man stands up at Town Meeting to voice his opinion while his neighbors look on respectfully. This image captures a way of life still central to the experience of many citizens of small towns in New England to this day, yet this quintessential form of democracy is threatened by increasing cynicism about participating in civic life.
Participation in democracy takes many forms: the willingness to run for local office, to sit on a civic board or commission, to be an active part of the community. In the large majority of towns in rural New England, Selectmen and women play a key role in setting the tone that directly impacts the degree of engagement in civic life by citizens. In order to be effective leaders, Selectboard members must be able to identify community needs, then mobilize and recruit constituents who can develop creative solutions to address those needs.
When asked “What could you do that would make the greatest difference to the life of your community?” many officials have responded “get more people involved!” But in these days of long commutes and even longer working hours, increasing distrust of government, and satellite TV, it is difficult for many citizens to make the time to attend Town Meeting, let alone become more actively engaged in civic life. This leads to a vicious cycle in which Selectmen bemoan the apparent cynicism and apathy of their citizens, but have difficulty overcoming their own cynicism about their citizens’ interest in getting involved.
The Selectperson Institute was designed to help break that cycle.