Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Clark: Invoking Civility

I love the Town Meeting Civil Invocation, because it speaks of civility.

In this election year, there’s been an awful lot of yelling about building walls —frankly, I could use a little more conversation about building bridges. And in fact, civic infrastructure is what town meeting is all about.

“We are gathered today in civil assembly,” the invocation begins. “We gather to make decisions; about what is right, about what is wrong. Let us advocate for our positions, but not at the expense of others.”

The Invocation seems even more important, given new research about the possible cause of our current incivility —namely, the way government engages citizens.

“Conventional participation” is what social scientists call most formal government meetings, and every public hearing you’ve ever been to.

New research is clear: conventional participation is ineffective—and worse. Conventional participation tends to increase people’s feelings of powerlessness. It decreases our interest and trust in government; it lowers our public spiritedness and our perceptions of government credibility; and it increases polarization.

Conventional participation techniques like public hearings are frustrating and discouraging for public officials, too.

But perhaps most importantly, conventional participation can create poor governance. As relationships fray, governments are seen as less legitimate, and can become less financially sustainable.

But a good town meeting is not “conventional” participation.

In a well functioning community, town and school meetings are closer to what researchers call “thick” participation - where citizens come together to deliberate, hear and influence each other, and take meaningful, empowered action. “Thick” participation improves community resilience, builds social capital, and can even strengthen the economy.

Town Meeting Day was never intended to be the only time we talk about local issues. It’s the culmination of a year's worth of selectboard and planning commission meetings, school discussions, conservation commission hikes, conversations at soccer games, and a thousand other ways neighbors shape communities.

In slow years, town meeting has lower participation. But it stands ready for us in difficult years, when there are hot issues, and leaders to be held accountable. Once a year—every year—it’s a culminating act of self-governance.

We should all keep in mind the Civil Invocation’s conclusion, urging us to remember that “… our neighbors with whom we disagree are good people, ‘with hopes and dreams as true and as high as ours.’ And… in the end, caring for each other, in this community, is of far greater importance than any difference we may have.”

Welcome to town meeting.

Susan Clark is a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of "Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home." She is also Town Moderator of Middlesex, Vermont.
Latest Stories