Reviving Town Meeting: An interview with Susan Clark [author of the book All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community (Ravenmark, 2005).] Q. You say that your new book about Vermont town meeting is a “call to action.” What do you mean by this? We need to act, because Vermonters are losing our collective voice. In recent years, Vermonters—both at the individual and at the town level—are letting go of our traditional, face-to-face town meetings. Increasingly, we're moving to the Australian ballot system; or we're shifting decisions to the state or national level; or we're just not showing up at all when decisions get made. I first got the idea for All Those in Favor because my own town of Middlesex was contemplating moving to Australian ballot. I wanted one good source that laid out the arguments on this. My son was just a little baby at that point, so like a lot of parents of young families, I had no time for reading and I had the attention span of a gnat. But I knew it wasn't just me—people who are working two jobs, people who are trying to keep body and soul together—a lot of Vermonters don't feel we have time for democracy. I knew [UVM professor] Frank Bryan's book Real Democracy was just coming out, and I thought some of his research could help activists, if it was accompanied by advice. Why is town meeting important? Let's put it in a few hundred words. What can we do right now to save it? Put it into ten tips. The impacts go beyond Vermont. Frank makes a remarkable, compelling case for the connection between how we govern ourselves locally, and what it can mean for the world—the link between town meeting and our prospects for survival as a species. Vermont's democratic system is a beacon, in a world that really needs beacons. Our message really is one of hope. Q. There is so much Vermont mythology that has grown up around the concept of “town meeting.” What are the realities of the “town meeting” situation in 21st century Vermont? To answer this, we drew from the research Frank Bryan and his UVM political science students have done during the last thirty years. Readers who know Frank for his inspiring (and often hilarious) writing might be surprised to know what a data geek he is. His correlation coefficient scatterplot variable yada-yada will make your eyes cross. But he's created this synthesis of hundreds and hundreds of Vermont town meetings that's extraordinarily valuable. We should use his work as a blueprint. For instance, everyone knows that socio-economic factors have a huge effect at the voting booth—higher-income, better-educated people are more likely to vote. But guess what? Something about town meeting is a great leveler. There is no link between a town's attendance at or verbal participation in its town meeting, and any of its socio-economic indicators. We should be shouting this to the sky, because of course, class bias of any kind diminishes democracy. You might assume that people are afraid of diversity. But in fact there is no link between town meeting attendance and whether a town is filled with people from lots of different socio-economic backgrounds. And this is one of town meeting's greatest gifts—it brings people from all walks of life together, face-to-face, and makes us identify and work toward our common goals. This combination makes a social scientists' heart beat faster, because there is simply no better prescription for true, sustainable community building. Q. What suggestions does your book offer for improving the culture of “town meetings” in 21st century Vermont? We examine the Australian ballot. There are well-meaning people on both sides of this argument, and Vermonters should all decide for themselves where they come down. But we come out against it. It shuts off deliberation and cramps citizens' power, reducing us to little more than rubber stamps. Australian ballot increases the quantity of voters, but not by much; meanwhile, the reduction in the quality of our democracy is enormous. We admit that town meeting works better in smaller towns, and we offer alternatives, such as the Representative Town Meeting (Brattleboro model) for larger communities. We urge businesses to give people time off to participate in town meeting. There are now bills in the legislature (S. 210 and S. 219) that would allow us to treat town meeting attendance as we do jury duty—time off from work without being penalized. Seems like the least we can do for our democracy, doesn't it? Sit down and write your legislators about this! We make a case for “creative localism,” reminding our state leaders that local governments are the best place for citizens to engage, and more decision-making power should remain at the local level. I interviewed dozens of Vermonters about what makes their town meetings sing, and we offer specific action steps you can take locally, today. For instance: â€¢ Offer child care; you can improve participation measurably, especially among women. â€¢ Highlight the most important decisions that will be made at town meeting this year-- don't let them get hidden in the bowels of the budget. â€¢ Include elements of celebration; acknowledge people's work, and say thank you. â€¢ Write a welcome letter to every person who was added to the voter checklist this year, explaining and personally inviting them to town meeting. â€¢ Help your town make a great town report—design a nice cover, supply photos, or make a pie chart to show the data in a more understandable way—whatever skills you have that will help bring folks in. â€¢ Buy our book, read it, and then give it to your local library or your selectboard. Heck, buy a bunch and start a study group! (I can be shameless about this because all proceeds go to support democracy education programs.) And if you start that study group, bring cookies; food at every meeting is another one of our tips. â€¢ Attend your town meeting, and bring a friend. Q. One of the last chapters in your book is called “The Other 364 Days.” Say more. Think about the unique elements of town meeting–that local people have direct decision-making power; that we break down the formality of “public life” through things like the pot-luck supper. We can learn from these things, and carry those lessons with us throughout the year. So we recommend creativity in inviting democratic participation. Think beyond the 7:00 p.m. public hearing – how about field trips, living room discussions, work parties? Think beyond the traditional learning styles – not everyone learns by being talked at, so we should involve visuals, hands-on examples, and other ways of helping citizens explore tough concepts. We provide examples of creative publicity and outreach, and innovative ways to celebrate each community's unique aspects. And it works both ways. Look at data on civic health—things like neighborliness, trust, tolerance, reciprocity. Five out of the six New England states—the only places where town meeting is fully practiced—rank in the top ten for civil society. And Vermont usually lands in the top three, often ranking number one. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming: the way we govern ourselves, through our face-to-face town meetings, affects how we live together the rest of the year. Q. As a student of Vermont's local political culture, how do you feel about Vermont independence? I knew you'd ask me this! But I must confess, I'm not sure how to answer. I love America's history—the people's history. And I grieve when I see what is happening to our democratic system over time—it's the same feeling as if a dear member of my family has been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. Now the question is, do we leave? Or do we stay by the death-bed, despite the bleak prognosis, and hope against hope that we can nurture a recovery? People look to Vermont as a model of integrity, common sense, and honest civility—we lead, in a way that is out of proportion to our size. So, whether we leave America's sick-bed or not, Vermont's discussions about independence are healthy and health-giving. We celebrate our civic heritage. We are specific about what we know to be right and wrong. We talk about possibility and hope. And we will see where it takes us.