We are blessed to live in a place that is not homogeneous, not terribly suburban, not cookie-cutter, strip-mall, boring. Living in a place with lots of different perspectives means that there will sometimes be tensions that need to be resolved. Although I try to have conversations with people that disagree with my admittedly strong opinions on a range of issues, sometimes I catch myself just trying to make my argument stronger without truly listening to the other person’s perspective and trying to understand where they are coming from.

As an example, the town of Seneca just announced that it will once again receive a huge payment from the Casella-operated landfill, effectively canceling out a need for a property tax. My initial reaction was anger, and since we all know that anger is the outward effect of an underlying emotion, I realized that I was feeling a sense of injustice. Geneva largely bears the brunt of the smells, tractor-trailer traffic, and associated litter from the landfill, so it strikes me as unfair that Geneva does not receive a similar impact fee which could provide taxpayers here some relief.

But in speaking with some Seneca residents I started to understand that when landfill liners need to be replaced, or fail, and spill toxic leachate, those residents face the biggest risks of groundwater contamination. I learned that we both share the wish that Ontario County would create a reserve fund for environmental cleanup so that county and town taxes don’t spike in response to these issues.

From that, we saw that our two positions could actually convene on a shared solution: Rather than Ontario County taking landfill operation dollars and doling them out across all municipalities, the county should put a lot of the money into an environmental remediation fund and then provide financial assistance to municipalities in direct proportion to the negative impact of the landfill operations. That means towns like Farmington, on the west side of the county, would get significantly less (if any) compared to those of us in the east.

Then there’s the discussion about Geneva schools. A meeting was called by two concerned parents with one ground rule: “Talk about solutions only, nothing negative.” This allowed space where we didn’t have to hear about the petition circulating to run people out of town, setting aside the political agendas and shaming of our neighbors in order to talk about what the experience of our children in the schools is really like. Attempting to understand what it might be like for a child who lost their home, or doesn’t have enough to eat, or experienced abuse during the pandemic to now be navigating all the stresses of high school allowed us all to approach the matter from a position of compassion rather than outrage.

The solutions that came out of that meeting were wonderful. We agreed that we can’t (and shouldn’t try to) arrest our way out of the problem nor ignore it and hope things smooth over. Instead, the leaders of the meeting brought us together to offer students and staff direct support. A committed group of parents has been greeting students at the high school in the morning and wishing them well in the afternoon, creating an onsite presence of parents from all backgrounds who are there for them. The meeting to listen and understand led to broad agreement that we can’t expect kids to settle problems with maturity and restraint if we adults aren’t doing that ourselves.

Sometimes we are so fixated on having our say, being right, proving a point, that we miss the experience that comes from trying to understand another perspective. Please understand that I am not encouraging you to engage with someone looking to start a fight or someone violating someone else’s rights. I just believe that we should not write off everyone who reaches a different answer to questions that reasonable people could disagree on.

Just because I don’t want to give tax breaks to big developers but some city councilors call that “progress” doesn’t mean I don’t want to understand why they feel that way. By listening to their explanation (instead of just waiting to blurt out my own thoughts), I hope to gain understanding of their point of view and motivation, even if it turns out that understanding doesn’t lead to agreement. I hope you’ll consider joining me in spending more time seeking to understand rather than just waiting for a chance to have a say.

Jackie Augustine lives with her three children in Geneva, where she served on City Council for 16 years. An ethics instructor at Keuka College, she is also co-director of the Seneca7 relay race. Her “Doing the Write Thing” column appears every other Tuesday. Email her at writethingcolumn@gmail.com.

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