Photo: Gloucester seaport

Building Local Capacity in Gloucester, MA

Gloucester is a diverse coastal community on Massachusetts’ North Shore, known for traditions of shipbuilding, fishing, art, and summer retreats from the city. Connected by the commuter rail to Boston, the city has an increasing number of professionals making the daily trip to the city to work.

The city has very distinct neighborhoods, including urban working-class areas, a working industrial waterfront, quaint outlying communities, an art colony, and a piece of New England’s “gold coast.” Politically, the city could not be more diverse, with almost 60% of its inhabitants not affiliated with either major party.

In recent years, like many coastal communities renegotiating their identities amidst economic and demographic shifts, Gloucester has been challenged to bring longtime residents, some of whom have lived in the city for generations, and newer arrivals into a single community.

Underlying tensions are exposed often: every time the city looks to decide how to use newly acquired property, whether to invest in a new school or to erect a monument or piece of public art.

Building Local Capacity

A group of five Gloucester residents, including Essential Partners' own John Sarrouf, gathered to discuss what they could do to foster a more constructive culture of dialogue in the city.

The group launched two cornerstone initiatives that would become the foundations for Gloucester Conversations (GC), a ongoing citywide dialogue project, designed to help the city discuss tense or contentious issues.

First, the group hosted small dialogues for people to tell their stories and express their hopes for the city. These Kitchen Table Conversations gave neighbors a framework to gather for a deeper kind of conversation in their home and discuss what was most important to their collective future. In addition to discussing specific issues, participants reflected on the process of conversation itself, and how dialogue can make a place for everyone.

The second initiative was training a cadre of facilitators who could lead small group conversations within larger community dialogues. GC shared its vision with leaders in government, journalism, education, arts and culture, asking for and offering their support, outreach which was exceedingly well-received.

When tensions escalated over the placement of a donated piece of public art, city leaders asked Gloucester Conversations to help guide the conversation around developing a public art policy.

Public Art, Homelessness, Libraries, and More

Gloucester Conversations designed and facilitated a dialogue session for arts and cultural leaders, and later, a successful open community meeting. Rather than debate the merits of the particular piece of art, GC invited a conversation about what Gloucester wanted in its public art, and how to think together beyond a single sculpture and placement—about what the community cares about and how it will approach decision-making.

The conversation contributed to a public art policy written by the Committee for the Arts. In addition, GC is now organizing community meetings in each ward of the city to gather public input on that policy and other arts initiatives.

Since then, Gloucester Conversations facilitators have helped the community:

  • Resolve tensions between representatives of a day-center for homeless individuals and its neighbors, leading to the discovery of common ground, collaborative problem-solving, and a plan for ongoing communication
  • Support conversations about education and converting school libraries into ‘learning commons”
  • Facilitate public conversations about the “Massachusetts Ocean Plan”
  • Create a study circle about what to do with an abandoned school

The vision is of a Gloucester with the capacity to take on all of the big issues that it faces, together, and with more of its voices heard. Neighbors can speak to neighbors about even the most difficult decisions with civility and care.

Trained facilitators can invite the meaningful conversations that everybody wants to have, and the city’s future reflects the broad interests and hopes that make up the community.