Two Harvard Law student-researchers urged residents of Sudbury, a town rife with political and social conflict, to voice their opinions and to more thoroughly consider opposing viewpoints during a Sunday afternoon forum in the town center.
The residents convened at Grange Hall, where Seanan Fong and Jiayun Ho presented findings from “The Sudbury Listening Project,” a first-of-its-kind diagnostic report overseen by the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. Fong and Ho compiled the report over two months, interviewing and meeting with Sudbury residents to evaluate the sources of townwide tension.
“People expressed that things that needed to get done weren’t getting done because people refused to collaborate,” Fong told his audience of about 50 people. “We hope that [the report] can be of some service for the town.”
The report noted that townwide tensions arose when one student fatally stabbed another at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in 2007, and continued to escalate after a town employee was cited for drunken driving in 2012 and an apparently upset resident placed toilets on the lawn of a selectman in 2014.
Dr. Carolyn Helsel of the Sudbury Clergy Association, which helped the town seek assistance from Harvard, said the report was meant to combat “a feeling of incivility among the townspeople” and aimed to help Sudbury “move forward as a more unified town.”
Fong and Ho told the audience that many of the people they interviewed said they felt threatened and hurt by hostility within the town government.
The two Harvard students said that tensions result from attempts by townspeople to divide the public on issues, rather than cooperate and engage in discussion. Fong and Ho suggested that residents try to understand differing viewpoints and not make judgments about others without first hearing their arguments.
During the forum, residents were given the opportunity to respond to Fong and Ho’s findings, both publicly and in smaller groups.
Several audience members said that were upset by the conflicts, but that the forum seemed to be a step in the right direction.
“It was effective in getting us started and it was worthwhile,” said John Baranowsky, 67, a civil engineer and 38-year Sudbury resident. “But we have to hope that people will act on it to get the ball rolling.”Matthew MacCormack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.