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Spencer Rendahl: Deep Democracy

I lived in my small New Hampshire town almost ten years before I started going to the annual town and school meetings, held in the elementary school gym. Knowing there were important votes that would affect the quality of the school, I began bringing my preschool-aged daughter. Later my infant son joined us. For kids it’s a party with snacks, toys, games, and a movie or two in another room. Initially, I found humor in big debates over whether or not the town should spend $50,000 on a used dump truck. But I quickly learned there are often really compelling issues – like when the town debated its own stance on gay marriage, which it voted to support. This past year, with school enrollment going down and special education costs going up, the school board proposed a budget that could cut two teachers. Two seventh grade girls spoke in support of saving the teachers’ jobs. A proposed budget increase didn’t pass, but voters gave the girls a standing ovation.

Over time, I’ve come to see the town and school meetings less as a civic duty and more as a homecoming. I grew up largely in the suburbs, where I only knew a small cross-section of town. With each town meeting season, I’ve met a few new people and reconnected with more.

About a decade ago, I sat down next to an elderly woman and her husband. We chatted between votes and bumped into each other around town during the year. Last year her husband passed away, and I attended his memorial service. From my seat in the back bleachers during this year’s school meeting, I saw her sitting with supportive friends. Another friend came to the meeting while fighting cancer. A scarf covering her head; she also sat with friends. I gave them both hugs.

At town meeting last year, my 5-year-old son played in the kids’ room as usual, but he’d been in a serious accident and couldn’t walk. Countless townspeople had sent messages of support, some had given coloring books and lego sets to a boy in a wheelchair they hardly knew. Others had come to our house to play board games and read books with him.

My son is now fully-recovered and walking again. At las week's School Meeting, as he played in the kids’ room, I sat back and regarded many of the people who’d reached out to us, together, debating, and voting in the gym. And I felt blessed.