Charlemont Forum an opportunity for public discussion


Published: 7/9/2019 11:10:09 PM

Sometimes it’s serendipity that’s the mother of invention.

And while something as elaborate as a 10-year-old hilltown public lecture series requires plenty of volunteer legwork, the seeds of Charlemont Forum fell to the ground quite by accident back in the spring of 2009.

Susan Purdy of Hawley was trying to line up her team of volunteers for the upcoming Mohawk Trail Concerts season and phoned Priscilla Little in Washington, D.C. to re-enlist her and husband, David Little, who have a summer home in Rowe.

Of course, said Little. And by the way, she said, David — a retired Harvard University religion professor and an associate of its international affairs center — was giving a talk that same afternoon at the State Department about the influence of Reinhold Neibuhr on then-President Barack Obama.

Neibuhr, the Harvard theologian who in the 1930s and ‘40s had a summer home in Heath, was called “one of my favorite philosophers” by the new president because of his “idealistic realism” that pointed to the need for international diplomacy.

Purdy guessed there would be community interest in the same talk here if Little would be willing to present it again at the Charlemont Federated Church, where they both were members. Little did, and a hastily arranged talk at the church that July attracted a huge crowd.

It was clear that the hilltowns, which have long drawn a mix of curious year-round and seasonal residents like Little and Purdy, would appreciate more of these Chautauqua-like talks.

The Charlemont Forum, today organized by a nine-member board from across several hilltowns and funded by donations and by grants from local cultural councils from more than a dozen towns, was “committed to inquiry, not advocacy” in exploring “the causes of and possible solutions for many aspects of the current divisions in American social, political and economic culture,” according to its mission statement.

All of the programs are free and open to the public, attracting audiences, which on occasion fill Charlemont Federated Church. It’s an echo of the “lyceum movement” that was popular long before the era of radio and television.

The forum, which on June 27 presented a talk on poverty — “Who’s on the Edge, Who’s Over the Edge and Why”— by Poor People’s Campaign co-founder Liz Theoharis, will feature a July 24 program on climate change by Columbia University oceanographer and paleo-climatologist Peter de Menocal at the Charlemont church.

Through the years, the forum’s array of speakers — including Niebuhr’s grandson and the daughter of civil rights lawyer William Kunstler — have presented programs on religion and politics, immigration, economic inequality and race as well as preserving and reclaiming American democracy.

But while organizers have succeeded in bringing to Charlemont scholars, authors and theologians from afar, the forum has worked to bring home a Franklin County perspective. Theoharis’s June 27 program included presentations by guests from Community Action, Stone Soup Café, Good Neighbors Food Pantry and Racial Justice Rising.

Each of those groups invited some of the 100 or so people attending from around the region to get involved in addressing the problems of economic injustice locally.

Last year’s program on “reclaiming American democracy” featured former Shelburne resident Josh Silver speaking about how his nationwide organization is working to advance comprehensive campaign finance and election reform. And the audience also learned about pending anti-corruption resolutions on more than a dozen local Town Meeting warrants, as proposed by the organization.

Working with the Rowe Conference Center, the forum has also co-sponsored three interfaith spring conferences. Those combined New York-based teleconferences on race, economic inequality and environmental justice with local events such as a keynote address by Community Action Executive Director Clare Higgins.

While those attempts to bring national issues home to local solutions may have moved beyond inquiry and toward advocacy, organizers also tried to help attendees work toward solutions.

The forum also collaborated last year with Double Edge Theatre, Leverett artist Louise Minks and Hawley choral director Alice Parker in a Mass Humanities-funded program, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” that featured a reading of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Fourth of July speech.

The Charlemont Forum will collaborate this year with Mohawk Trail Concerts to present a free Aug. 10 program of gospel and other songs reflecting the African-American experience, performed by baritone James Dargan. A donation will be suggested for that concert, also at Charlemont Federated Church.

At a time when civic — and civil — dialogue seems to be waning and civic engagement is as necessary as ever to addressing serious issues we face, it’s a wonder there aren’t more efforts like these, not just for this town or the hilltowns but for the entire region.

As Little reflected recently, “We don’t have many opportunities for public discussion anymore. This is one of those rare opportunities when people can actually interact with one another and get other perspectives. We get our information in siloed ways, but here you can experience in living color what it is to confront someone who may have a different point view.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is

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