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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Maine Summer Institute Recalls the Roots of our Civic Society

Augusta, Maine — Looking at the Maine Summer Institute is to see how a tradition enriching our society’s civic tradition can get started. About fifteen civic leaders — from as far away as Britain, Argentina and Brazil — come together for a week of discussions, meetings with state officials and members of the public. This summer’s topic was the future of citizen movements and the objective was a little thinking and doing at the same time.
The idea behind the Institute came from a former reporter and present publisher of books on Maine and Yankee culture, Lance Tapley. He is also a persistently active citizen and member of the Board o Common Cause. Tapley knows that July in Maine is more tolerable than in Missouri or points south. So, he thought, why riot be a catalyst for bringing together a mix of civically conscious people from inside and outside the State? Invite the public and the Governor, state legislators, judges and regulators and, viola, things can start to happen.

Governor Joseph Brennan and Chairman of the Public Utility Commission, Peter Bradford, took a strong interest in a proposal to establish a Maine Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB), funded through voluntary memberships which are stimulated by solicitation required by law to be inserted inside monthly bills of the telephone, electric and gas companies. CUBs are operating under state laws in Wisconsin, Illinois and Sari Diego to advocate for consumer justice daily on behalf of residential ratepayers. CUBs are voluntary for members to join and without cost to taxpayers.

The Governor and several state legislators were also impressed with an idea, already working in Florida and Missouri, developed by Edgar Cahn, co-founder of Neighborhood Legal Services and now a professor of law. It’s called “Service Credits,” a new kind of money.

A simple state law can create an exchange bank for these service credits earned by people volunteering to help other people, for example, so their grandparents or parents can be given needed respite or homemaker care. Cahn calls the proposal “a mix between the old blood bank idea and a state-operated barter system. Like a blood bank, participants can build up credits against future need; like a barter system, it allows participants to purchase services without cash.”

Trading time helping others for service credits banked in a computerized exchange system can involve millions of people of all ages and fill needs that would cost billions of unavailable dollars.

Then Robert Rodale, of the Rodale Press, presented his proposal about how communities can economically regenerate themselves using local resources, local initiatives and local brainpower. The Regeneration Project starts with an inventory of the needs of the village, town or city such as energy, health care, financial services, shelter, repair services and the like.

Instead of importing tomatoes and other vegetables from California to Maine, can they be more homegrown? What local sources of renewable energy, recycling and preventive health care can be mobilized? In an era of dependence upon large corporations and faraway delivery of goods and services, Rodale wants us to discover the enormous potential of paying jobs and locally met needs and savings right in our community.

Those who came to the Institute from other countries provided some perspective. Des Wilson from England described how he has mobilized his country’s largest civic coalition to obtain a Freedom of Information law.

In England, even the location of toxic dumps or the names of garages, whose licenses have been suspended for fraud, are considered secrets by the government. He’s making progress, though. A leader in the anti-smoking drive from Argentina related how an astute series of motivating strategies reduced the consumption of cigarettes by 257 during a five year span. He taught the Institutethat effective civic techniques can still come out of a troubled landruled by a Junta during this period.

There was one day devoted to some of Maine’s problems and their susceptibility to citizen action reforms.

One woodsman was especially eloquent in describing how the multinational paper companies were clearcutting the Maine woods without regenerating the forest. He showed pictures of hundreds of square miles nearly denuded of trees through the companies’ inexorable drive to extract the timber in strip-mining fashion.

Can your state get a similar tradition underway as the Maine Summer Institute is doing? If you wish to write for information about how the Institute was started, send a stamped, self-addressed large envelope to Lance Tapley, Maine Summer Institute, P. 0. Box 2435, Augusta, Maine 04330.