Lessons from the Field: How Website Design, Amateur Therapy Sessions and OktoBEARfest Lead to a Promising Career in Global Policy

By Kate Kirby
M.A. Global Policy/International Environmental Policy ‘13

Downtown Orono, ME

For the past two months, I have been working as a community engagement research assistant for the Orono Village Association, in conjunction with the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

On paper, my job is to implement the marketing action plan developed in year 1 of the project. A contract between UMaine and the Orono Village Association (OVA) was established for the purpose of figuring out ways to bring more business downtown. Some—namely professors—see my job as a way to channel campus resources into the community to support stronger University-town integration. However, many of the business owners see me as a marketing specialist—a task I am ambitious (or foolish) enough to take on, but something I have very little training in. Some see me as an event planner, while others see me as the girl dressed up in lederhosen directing traffic at OktoBEARfest. But to the majority of the merchants, I am an attentive listener—a sort of business therapist.

Here I will highlight a few concrete lessons I have learned.

Lesson 1: Sincerity covers a multitude of sins.
As a fourth generation Orono resident, I had a pretty good idea of the key players in town. I knew that behind every conflict is a context that needs to be understood in order to move forward; I just had no idea how complex the framework was. And though it helps that I am a townie, I needed more than a familiar face and a sophisticated sounding degree to safely navigate the small-town relational minefield.

Last week I mentioned to a merchant notorious for being impossible to please how worried I was about always appearing to be the bearer of bad news, when all I wanted was for people to smile when I entered their shops. Instantly his cynical exterior changed from disgruntled to protective: “WHO doesn’t smile when you enter their store??” In my interactions with the merchants, more important than being local or socially perceptive, sincerity is the most effective way to earn respect.

Lesson 2: Appropriate implementation is an art form.
Deciphering the appropriate balance between what a community wants and what academia perceives is best for that community can be very difficult to say the least. According to market research, the town is in need of a stronger web presence. As a member of “Generation Google,” this makes perfect sense to me. When I’m hankering for a study break snack, I want to be able to google “Orono Restaurants” to see who is open and whether or not I can justify spending x amount of dollars on a product. Though great in theory, a quick survey of the technological savvy of the average downtown merchant presents a whole new set of challenges. For starters, old habits die hard. If you have run your business a certain way for 10, 20, or 30 years, why change now? Furthermore, computers can be extremely daunting for many people, and not everyone has the time or humility to sit down and receive tutorials from a young whippersnapper who, although has knowledge of computers, doesn’t know the first thing about running a small business. Not to mention Mainers, especially those who seek to be their own boss, tend to be stubborn and pride themselves in their independence and self-sufficiency. I can say that because I am one.

In the field of international development, it is essential to evaluate whether or not a product—a high-tech generator for instance—is considered an “appropriate technology” for the community it is being introduced in. When I was conducting research on a local capacity building initiative in Botswana, I noticed the boat motors, which had been gifted to the local fishermen by a University-UN collaborative, were all lying next to the riverbank in disrepair. The problem? No one within a seven-hour-drive knew how to fix motorboats. In 20-20 hindsight, maybe it would have been a good idea to train a few local budding entrepreneurs in the art of motorboat maintenance so that when the inevitable occurs, the fisherman and the repairman could both benefit. The same concept applies to a website initiative in Orono, Maine. If I went door-to-door setting up websites for each business owner without adequately educating them in website upkeep, their sites may quickly become inaccurate and irrelevant.

Lesson 3: Small-town U.S.A. could be small-town anywhere.
Whenever people ask how this graduate assistantship will prepare me for a career in global policy, I tend to respond with some quip about honing my diplomatic relations skills. And though I do believe that learning how to negotiate effectively is an important skill to have, the lessons I am learning from this job extend far beyond political proficiency. No matter where I have lived in the world—from Sexaxa, Botswana to Orono, Maine—there exists a shared humanity. And though the ramifications of a failed website project in the downtown business district may not seem as serious as a fishing community’s livelihood in rural Africa, the Orono village project is a microcosm of sustainable development initiatives around the globe.