For the past two years, I’ve been a member of the Amherst Cultural Council (ACC), a volunteer town committee tasked with giving grants to promote arts and culture in the Amherst area. In our most recent grant cycle, we gave out $61,000 to local painters, musicians, dancers, and mainstay arts institutions like Amherst Media and Amherst Cinema.
Reading through all the applications we get and deciding who should receive funding is hard work, but it’s worth it, and not only because it promotes the arts in town. The council also provides a place for members of all the varied groups that call Amherst home to get to know each other and work together toward a shared goal.
For me, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to meet people in town. It’s easy to live a cloistered life here. I’m pretty sure that I spent whole months without stepping off campus once during my sophomore year. The committee has allowed me — and at my busiest times, forced me — to really engage with town. In my time there, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the high schoolers, the new parents, and the old guard of the committee, people who are embedded in Amherst life in ways that I am not.
Our busy college lives make these sorts of intergenerational, bubble-breaking relationships tough to build, but they’re worth it. Amherst College can teach us a lot, but life has lessons for us beyond what we can learn from books and dorm room drama. The folks that I’ve met on the council have taught me not only about the arts and how to evaluate grants, but also about the town and the people in it. I’ve gotten advice and life lessons from them, and even indirectly drawing on their vast pools of experience as we consider grants has been eye-opening for me.
And they’ve also learned from me and my experience as a student living in this town. Students should matter here beyond the confines of campus. We clearly want to matter: we want to be respected when we walk around town, and we desire amenities, like food open later than 9 p.m. We even feel like our voices should matter when we speak out about town issues, such as the new affordable housing project nearby.
And frankly, we’re right. We live here for the better part of four years, often working in town and definitely spending our money there. But what goes on off campus can’t just be something we care about when we want to. We can’t complain or say our piece about what should happen without taking any responsibility. Our voices should matter, but when we aren’t putting in the effort to make this town better for everyone who lives here, it’s easy to discount what we have to say.
Thankfully, I’ve heard of countless ways that Amherst students have gotten involved in town life. Some work with a local housing advocacy group, and others volunteer for soup kitchens. Others work town jobs rather than staying on campus. This sort of outreach and integration between “town and gown” is extraordinarily important, and I hope it continues. The more students are involved in town life, the better for everyone. We have much to learn off campus, and the town can use our voices.
All of this brings me to my topic: the many town governance committees that need more members. Right now, there are vacancies on the committees for reparations, solar energy, disability access, and nine others that help run this town. And after I graduate, a spot will open up on the Amherst Cultural Council.
Time commitments on these committees vary, but many of them only meet every couple of weeks for an hour and a half or so. Even those infrequent meetings provide committee members with an opportunity to shape this community to better fit everyone’s needs and wants. Sitting on a town committee is civic engagement and self-government at its most basic: hands-on and small-scale.
Giving back to the town is one reason to join a committee, and placing student voices in local government is another. The last, and most personal, is the way that serving on a committee will reshape you. It might make you hate committees — I know that I sometimes wish a discussion would just end. But it will also help you appreciate all the minutiae involved in running even a town as small as Amherst. Local government demonstrates that democracy only works because of the unseen contributions of many, many people working together in good faith.
More than that, serving on a committee will teach you about this town, its history, and its people. For me, being a member of the Amherst Cultural Council has made the town of Amherst more than just the backdrop to my college years. I would love for another Amherst student to have that same experience. As I said, my spot on the council opens up in June. Maybe you can be the one to fill it.