Community impact takes many forms

By Karen Brace | Nov 26, 2015

In July when I started in my role as Camden’s community development director, I began to see people and organizations that are making an impact, large or small, on our lives here in Camden.

Each time I ran across this level of public engagement, my impressions added up. It was when 60 residents signed up for our new Camden Volunteer Corps that I realized that my hometown has evolved. Citizens have always been willing to participate, but I’m seeing now that a sense of civic engagement has taken hold. I’m privileged to work for Camden and to help to support the strong bonds of community. All of us came here or stay here because we feel connected, our children feel safe, we’re surrounded by incredible natural beauty, and, let’s face it, our quality of life can’t be matched. (I may be slightly biased, right?)

When citizens and organizations become engaged in our community, we see things happen. This fall I’ve been fortunate to work with creative individuals who sponsor three major events in our town. I’ve seen the people who run these events reach out to residents and students in a meaningful way. The result has been real impact: educationally, culturally and economically.

In October I had the privilege of attending the PopTech conference. Seated in the Opera House, I saw that several students and faculty from our local high school, even the superintendent, were also in the audience. Later I learned that the PopTech’s director had reached out to the school district and invited them in. Superintendent Maria Libby described to me the following week how doors were opened to the young people as they participated in presentations by innovators who work all over the world on compelling international issues. Ms. Libby said that it was an amazing experience for all of them. In a confluence of cultures, PopTech brought new awareness not just to the students but to our local educators. The superintendent (who was a schoolmate of mine here during the '80s) remarked that with the conferences bringing in such high-caliber speakers, the possibilities are endless. Her comment was, “Just think how lucky we are to have these resources.”

We’re fortunate to have residents who make these possibilities happen for students of all ages. Camden’s major events that happen each fall (the Camden International Film Festival and PopTech) and in the winter (the Camden Conference) create positive impact in many ways. This year, PopTech’s director Leetha Filderman put into action a vision to create a Camden community campus during their October event. Her goal was to open access to everyone in the greater community and to offer experiences that most children and adults in Maine are rarely exposed to.

First, with assistance from Maine-based foundations and individuals, the staff arranged to set up a global music street studio on the Village Green. To bring the street music studio to Camden, PopTech partnered with an organization called Found Sound Nation, a collective of musicians and artists who engage people from all walks of life in collaborative music. The studio on the Village Green featured young musicians from Russia, Kenya and the Balkans who have contributed to communities worldwide by promoting peace and diplomacy through music. Camden was treated to a rich global blend of musical styles and cultural exchange right here in the center of town.

Across Elm Street in the Town Office lobby, PopTech’s campus continued with a demonstration of the Copenhagen Wheel. The wheel contains a motor, batteries, sensors, wireless connectivity, and an embedded control system. Test rides were open to anyone. Those who tried the new style of bike experienced how the Copenhagen Wheel transforms bicycles into smart electric hybrids. The Copenhagen Wheel is forecast to change the way towns and cities are able to enhance transportation options beyond automobiles.

A sponsor of PopTech this year was Facebook. The company participated by setting up a salon in a space on Elm Street that they named the “Games for Change Salon." Using Oculus Rift technology, community members took virtual journeys to locations across Africa for an inside view of high impact change projects initiated by the Clinton Foundation. Groups of students walked down from the Camden-Rockport Middle School to participate in Facebook’s virtual visits that transported them halfway across the world. Former president Bill Clinton was their virtual tour guide, and to meet up with him all our schoolchildren had to do was walk two blocks to the pavilion. This was an example of profound educational impact.

The campus stretched up to the Camden Public Library, where PopTech organized an interactive exhibit through the N Square Initiative. The exhibit, sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ploughshares Fund, and others, the exhibit provided school groups and visitors with an amazing walk through the history of nuclear weapons. Using tools such as Google Glass, the exhibit displayed ways society is dealing with the proliferation of weapons both now and in planning for the future. The N Square exhibit is making stops in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and thanks to the creative minds at PopTech, its very first stop was Camden. Maria and I said to each other as we sat in my office, how lucky are we to have these enriching cultural resources to expand our knowledge and impact our kids? Who would guess this would exist in our small coastal Maine hometown?

During each of our major conferences (The Camden Conference in February, the Camden International Film Festival in September and PopTech in October) we see attendees milling about the Opera House sidewalk and walking through town as they make their way to the harbor or in search of a meal. Participants fill our local inns, shop in our shops, visit Camden’s restaurants and boost our economy while they’re here. The conferences contract with local service providers and caterers, reserve hotel rooms for speakers, employ extra staff and keep van drivers very busy. A recent economic impact study by the University of Maine found that the Camden Conference spends an estimated $300,000 on employment related to their weekend event, with an additional $330 per participant for labor hired directly and indirectly for the conference. The study went on to show that attendees of the Camden Conference spend an average of $850 over those three days in February, and that local lodging expenditures reach $80,000. In addition to the significant economic contribution, 20 percent of the conference’s attendees are enrolled students and receive complimentary tickets. The far-reaching impact of the conference is cultural, economic and educational, all quietly fostered by a group of our Camden neighbors for the last 28 years.

The Camden Conference has expanded to offer 50 to 70 community outreach programs that span all four seasons, related to the theme of its February conference which this year is “The New Africa." These free community programs have grown to draw a total of 2, 500 to 3,000 people annually.

In 2016, the Camden Conference will be in its 29th year, the Camden International Film Festival is in its 12th, and PopTech will celebrate two decades of conferences at the local Opera House. The Camden International Film Festival’s programs have grown year-round as well. CIFF brings emerging filmmakers to Camden from all over the country for workshops where they consult with mentors and connect with influential industry leaders. The festival has become recognized by CNN and Tribecca as a niche showcase for documentary films. CIFF founder Ben Fowlie says that following the 2015 festival, he feels the event’s come into its own. “Repeat attendees know where their favorite Camden haunts are now,” he told us. “They’re making the most of being here. Our participants know which are their favorite restaurants and we don’t have to give them directions. They feel comfortable when they arrive and make themselves at home.” Ben intentionally chose Camden as the location for the festival because he also grew up in this town. He’s as passionate about Camden as Superintendent Libby and I are, and as many of you have grown to be too.

Community impact can take several forms, economic, cultural, educational or simply neighbor-to-neighbor. When you add it all up, we are certainly fortunate. No wonder we stay.

I will be offering this column on a regular basis in my new role. Community engagement is the key that I work toward: no matter where our individual interests lie, we’re all engaged in something. I hope you share your ideas, skills and interests with the community whenever you are inspired to, because participation makes it a better place for everyone. They say it takes a village, and luckily we have a strong one.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.