The power of kindness: Harvard audience hears story of Groton welcome stones

“This project meant a lot to me and to a lot of other people.” The emotion in Groton Selectman Jack Petropoulos’ voice was palpable as he introduced his Nov. 30 talk, “Unexpected Divisiveness and the Power of Kindness,” to an audience of 25 or so people upstairs at the Harvard Congregational Church. The talk was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Harvard.

The “project” was the installation of eight stones engraved with the message “All Are Welcome” at the boundaries of the town. But first, the installation by the Department of Public Works had to be approved by Groton’s 2017 Annual Town Meeting. What Petropoulos thought would be a “slam-dunk,” turned out to be an issue that bred divisiveness, the very thing Petropoulos was seeking to avoid. He said the journey to the stones brought about some eye-opening realizations about opinions different from his own and, ultimately, about the power of kindness. Petropoulos presented his experience and the lessons he learned in a clear, well-documented PowerPoint presentation with video clips.

One of eight engraved stones that became a topic for debate in Groton. (Courtesy photo)

Petropoulos said the impetus for the project started with the Syrian refugee crisis and was fueled by the national divisiveness around the 2016 presidential election. He asked himself, “What can I, in a small town, do?” At a November 2016 selectmen’s meeting, Petropoulos brought a proposal to “move the needle just a bit” and engage in a bit of social activism, without making it a political initiative. He got approval to “do something.”

The “something” he came up with was to use stones, which Groton, like every other New England town, has in abundance, and that would involve no cost and fit into the landscape, looking as though they had always been there. The words “All Are Welcome” below the name of the town seemed like the right message to engrave on the stones, friendly but rather innocuous, and the cost would be privately funded, with a $1 endorsement by Town Meeting. Kids would be involved: There would be essay contests at elementary, middle, and high school levels on the topic “What does ‘All Are Welcome’ mean to you?” and the winners would read their essays at Town Meeting. The town would bury a time capsule under a stone, with the essays and newspaper articles telling the story of the challenge for inclusiveness that Groton fought in 2017. The vision went beyond the town to imagine that the bordering towns could carve their own “All Are Welcome” on their side of the Groton stones.

Petropoulos sought and received support from the police, the schools, and the Faith Council, and the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the project.

A screeching halt

All this positive energy was brought to a screeching halt or, as Petropoulos put it, “All was bliss up until this next slide.” A wave of unexpected negative reaction rippled through the town. People questioned the word “all,” arguing the stones should say just “welcome.” Some suggested the wording was a way to make Groton a “stealth sanctuary city” and that it would also encourage criminals. One person said the message was a lie: “I’m Jewish, and I don’t feel welcome.” Others accused the selectmen of using children as “political tools” by having them read their essays at Town Meeting. The School Committee became defensive, and Petropoulos felt that a newspaper reporter was not totally objective in an interview, though the written piece was balanced. “Personally, I began to doubt whether the article would pass,” said Petropoulos.

His doubts were assuaged when Town Meeting passed the article 140 to 117, with no debate. But the sense of victory was short-lived as a backlash grew. People said the moderator hadn’t allowed discussion, that they had felt they couldn’t speak against the motion, that the selectmen were unfair, and that this was a political move. Still, the vote had authorized the stones, and so the DPW went forward with the installations. Petropoulos said the selectmen remained open to opponents of the project and tried to maintain a level of civility.

Backlash

Things came to a head when the selectmen received a citizen petition to remove “All Are” from the stones. This resulted in an article on the warrant for the Oct. 23 Special Town Meeting, of which Petropoulos showed several video clips. It was democracy at work, he said, and a fascinating look at social attitudes. There were articulate, impassioned speakers on both sides. Supporting the motion to remove “All Are” were people who asked why Groton should get involved in national divisiveness, who argued that the town didn’t need to “preach” through markers; individuals can be tolerant in their personal lives. Opposing the removal of “All Are” one person asked, “How could I explain to my grandkids why they took out “All Are”? “I’m not leaving anything to the people in Washington; I want to do it in my town,” said another. A person argued that the stones could unite the town; after a while people would become used to them and their message would become the norm. “I have been in Groton only eight weeks,” said a young mother, “and the rocks made me feel welcome.”

A motion for a secret vote was made but defeated. A show of hands for the motion to remove “All Are” was counted a second time, after which the moderator announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the noes have it.”

Petropoulos ended by summarizing the lessons he learned through this project. Chief among them: Don’t make assumptions; do it for the right reasons, line up support, and know that you are making a difference.

Inspired

In their applause and reactions during and after the presentation, the audience members showed they had been inspired by the story. Sydney Blackwell of Willow Road commented, “For me, one of the most inspiring parts of Jack’s talk was hearing the people at Town Meeting speaking up for the increased sense of community the stones represented to them. There was a palpable feeling of wanting to heal the increasing divisions creeping into our communities.” League Vice President Sharon McCarthy, who organized the event after seeing one of the stones, said, “Jack, in following his heart, led the town of Groton to the discussion of what it means to boldly say our community welcomes everyone. Although he was shocked at the pushback by some, his belief that showing kindness will help to heal divisiveness within a community was truly inspiring.”

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