We can all agree that Maine winters are too long and that this one overstayed its welcome. Otherwise, though, it often seems as if agreement is in short supply. This dark, cold season symbolized a rough time in the public life of our state and nation.
Mean-spirited partisanship from Augusta to Washington has multiple causes, all heightened by our widespread economic fears. Whether it’s climate change, health care or education crises, there’s a lot to be worried about. As Mainers, we share a perspective that the problems are even worse in our “grayest” of states, which remains largely oriented toward a traditional extractive economy even as we move further into our post-industrial era.
It’s easy to get discouraged in these circumstances. What can any of us do in the face of such forces that threaten to overwhelm individual initiative?
The hardscrabble northern New England tradition of commitment to family and community suggests the best way forward. That tradition builds on pride from living in a place where local engagement matters and where the relationships we forge make positive change. Downtown Bangor is a case in point: Its remarkable renaissance over the past decade shows how challenges are being met with purposeful action.
The University of Maine in Orono is transforming its relationships with a host of public ventures to strengthen our communities through a commitment to the humanities and civic engagement.
As the largest and most comprehensive educational institution in the state, the University of Maine has long led in technical arenas. But what about the more intangible aspects of the human experience like the visual and performing arts, literature and poetry, understanding oneself in a historical and ethical context, and the need to communicate in multiple languages in our increasingly interconnected world? These vital areas of humanistic commitment inform a meaningful life and fuel the local dynamism that ensures that our best values guide the direction of change in our time.
Civic engagement is an essential ingredient for a democratic society to flourish, but what does this mean in practice? We can look to the Bangor region for some examples.
When the statewide National History Day contest for middle and high school students brought more than 350 people to the UMaine campus last month, we got to share the excitement of young students sharing their research through papers, exhibits, websites, documentary films and even performances. It was thrilling to be reminded that our future is brightest when we tap into and encourage such endeavors.
Look at the great new cultural organizations in Bangor, from the University of Maine Museum of Art to River City Cinema, from the Downtown Bangor Arts Collaborative to KahBang’s brand new gallery space. These all add to the energy of enduring organizations, such as the Maine Discovery Museum, the Penobscot Theatre and Bangor Public Library.
No single event highlights the energy of our local cosmopolitanism better than PechaKucha Bangor. Devised by a Japanese architecture firm, PechaKucha is an event with a 20×20 format, in which each speaker presents 20 images that are on screen for only 20 seconds each — just 6 minutes, 40 seconds for each presentation. The “PK” network now connects more than 700 cities across the world, and PechaKucha Bangor regularly draws audiences of well over 100 people.
These organizations and events showcase our rich culture and foster the personal connections that form a solid base for civic engagement. And civic engagement holds the potential to continually improve public life across our state.
On Saturday, May 17, more than a dozen local and regional partners are collaborating to showcase how humanities-based work is transforming our region. The second annual Bangor Public Humanities Day will take place in multiple downtown venues.
Civic engagement that makes a difference springs from the unique sense of community fostered by the multiple cooperative organizations in Bangor’s fabulous downtown space of just a few square blocks. Come join us.
Gibran Graham is a member of the Bangor City Council, a founder of PechaKucha Bangor and a board member of River City Cinema. Liam Riordan is a professor of history at the University of Maine, board member of the Maine Humanities Council, and incoming director of the UMaine Humanities Initiative. Find the Downtown Bangor Public Humanities Day on Facebook, or download the schedule at: umaine.edu/umhi/umhi-programs.