Forward Momentum: Leadership in the Metro
They say leadership takes many forms. There are the authoritarian leaders, the egalitarian leaders, the leaders who take no credit. There are some who get recognition and praise, and others who toil tirelessly in the background. They’re in your workplace, your social circle, and your community—literally everywhere you look, there’s some form of leader.
We all have a subjective notion of what a “leader” is, and we all have a handful of people we look up to as great examples of it. For as many descriptions as one might develop, however, good leaders often display common traits.
“I think what they have in common is a willingness to put themselves out there in order to move something that they care about forward,” said Jeff Wahlstrom, the president of Starboard Leadership Consulting, a Bangor-based firm that consults businesses on leadership and board governance. “Their ability and willingness to really roll up their sleeves to make it happen helps to bring others along who see that there’s somebody there who’s willing to take the chance, willing to take the risk, willing to perhaps fail.”
While some leaders are well aware of their role, he said, others are simply passionate about their cause. Often times, leaders at the grassroots level work not for praise but for the outcome—selflessness is a key hallmark of leadership, he said.
The first step to leading change in your community is to get involved, said Kirsten Ismail, the vice president of wealth management at UBS in Bangor and the chair of the Bangor Region Leadership Institute (BRLI) steering committee.
“You’ve got to go live in the community,” she said. “Go to the restaurant or try out a couple of the community events, because it’s not until you’re in and amongst the people [in the community] that you really know what to do as an individual to move it forward or to make it better.”
Every region has residents that go above and beyond to make their communities better places. Some you know, and some you don’t. The Bangor region is no different. We asked local business owners, residents and civic organizations to recommend people who are making our region a better place to live, work and play. It should be noted that this is no popularity contest—rather, this is but an example of the great work being done all around our region. Here, then, are five people leading our communities forward.
Maine Science Festival
When Kate Dickerson first started planning for the Maine Science Festival in 2012, she was simply looking to pique the region’s interest in what she calls “the science all around us.” In her eyes, Maine science (and the scientists involved) were being recognized all over the globe, but here in their backyard, they were being overlooked.
Now, since kicking off properly in 2015, the MSF has rapidly become one of the region’s must-do events. Featuring mostly free events over a three-day span, it’s become known for cool exhibitions, quirky seminars, and compelling headliners (statistician Nate Silver, known popularly for predicting presidential elections and sporting outcomes, was the featured speaker in 2016).
Dickerson said the goal is to provide everybody with a fun way to experience science on their own terms.
“The thing that makes it unique is that it follows the festival model…that presents the science in a way that it is not typically presented, or how people typically learned about things,” she said. “This is a chance for the community to come together and work out the different things happening all around us.”
Between 10,000 to 12,000 people attended the MSF in each of its first two years. Dickerson said the 2017 festival promises to deliver more of what the community has come to expect:
“We’re going to keep doing a top-notch festival,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to highlight the science that people don’t know is happening in Maine. We have what we call ‘hidden treasures.’ So we’re going to make them a little less hidden.”
On any given night, you can walk by a little storefront on Central Street in downtown Bangor and see poetry readings, art showings, live bands and more happening within.
What you might not know is that the storefront (officially known as The Central Gallery) is just one facet of the nonprofit Launchpad, an arts organization focused on developing artists and musicians statewide. The brainchild of 32-year-old Meg Shorette, Launchpad also runs the All Roads Music Festival in Belfast, Bangor’s annual New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown, and a host of crowdfunding initiatives, classes and workshops designed to promote the arts.
Since its beginning in 2014, Launchpad has provided a voice and an outlet to artists and musicians in the region that did not previously exist.
“We started doing all these shows [at Central Gallery] and we started working with all these artists,” said Shorette, who also books talent at Port City Music Hall in Portland, “and people [kept coming]. No matter what we were doing, they were just trusting that whatever we were doing was kind of cool, and they wanted to be there.”
She said that the support is encouraging, but not surprising—in Bangor, she said, a love for the arts is woven into the culture.
“I think that there’s a really curious nature about people in this region when it comes to art and music,” she said. “So I think there’s always going to be this hunger for what’s new and what’s up-and-coming. People love to go to shows, they love to follow bands, they love to follow artists…so I think it will just keep growing and expanding, and I don’t really see a point in this region where music and art don’t play a huge part of our identity.”
When the Millinocket-based nonprofit Our Katahdin purchased the former Great Northern Paper mill there for the princely sum of $1 earlier this year, many people raised an eyebrow. It’s a fact not lost on Sean DeWitt, Our Katahdin’s board president:
“I think some people think, ‘Oh, a nonprofit with very shallow pockets bought this thing, great,’” he said. “It’s a leap of faith. There’s no question. And the reason [we did it] is because it’s our home. If we can’t bet on our home, who can we bet on?”
Since 2014, Our Katahdin has been doing just that. Started by a group of Millinocket-area natives, Our Katahdin has focused on what they call “small wins” for the area. Successful projects in the area spearheaded by the organization include the revitalization of the Millinocket bandstand, bringing the Maine Outdoor Film Festival to the Katahdin region for the first time, and the creation of a community garden to supply local farmer’s market and food pantries.
“From the beginning, we said, ‘Let’s not create your typical nonprofit economic development engine,’” said DeWitt. “‘Let’s create a platform where we can create leadership opportunities for people in the region.’ That’s where it began. Our goal was to see if we can get one project a month done. It doesn’t matter how small it is. It could be $10. It could be $5,000.”
Now, with the the purchase of the mill, DeWitt and Our Katahdin have set their sights much higher. DeWitt said he envisions the site embracing the region’s natural assets, something like a vibrant, multi-tenant bioindustrial park.
“We’ve had conversations with a number of folks that are interested in [developing] the site,” said DeWitt, “and, you know, we want to set expectations with folks appropriately. Everyone has good ideas, but still there’s still a long road ahead. We’re counting in years, not months, until that site is working again.”
“We’re just going to put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “Anyone expecting a miracle, we’re going to disappoint. But anyone expecting a good honest effort, we can make them proud. That’s our goal.”
Friends of Lower Kenduskeag Stream
As many Bangor residents know, walking along the Kenduskeag Stream Trail can be a study in contrasts: the rugged beauty and multi-season scenery are sometimes offset by graffiti, homeless encampments and the odd shopping cart mid-stream.
About two years ago, Sean Gambrel decided that something should be done. As it happened, he was the one to do it.
The idea to develop a concerted effort to maintain the area was born after Gambrel adopted a portion of the trail as part of the city’s “Adopt-a-Garden” program: “I adopted the site and mostly just kept it mowed and planted a few flowers here and there,” he said. “It was while working down there that I had so many conversations with people about the general state of the trail.”
With the support of like-minded residents, Gambrel developed the Friends of Lower Kenduskeag Stream (FOLKS). Today, FOLKS is a full-fledged volunteer effort committed to regularly beautifying and maintaining the area. Gambrel said that anywhere from six to 30 people volunteer for any given effort, depending on the weather and the tasks, which range from landscaping to graffiti removal and vandalism repair.
They do their work without sponsorship or major funding, though they do get support for some projects. The City of Bangor recently provided materials to repair the footbridge over the stream after vandals damaged it. In addition, FOLKS was able to install trash cans after a donation from the nonprofit Greendrinks.
Gambrel, who’s also on the boards of WERU and River City Cinema and runs the concert series at 58 Main in Bangor, said the FOLKS effort has an almost karmic quality.
“The thing that I hear most is, ‘I’m afraid to go down there alone,’” he said. “I’ve been trying to combat that as much as possible. The more good faces that are out there, the more that’ll just increase. So [we’re] trying to keep things clean, make it welcoming, and get people out of trouble, because we think that’s just a good feedback cycle.”
Sgt. Tim Cotton
Bangor Police Department
It’s entirely possible that Sgt. Tim Cotton of the Bangor Police Department (BPD) is known more for his words than his deeds as a law enforcement officer. That’s because more than 201,000 people from around the world regularly follow his wry, comedic posts on the BPD’s Facebook page. For comparison, that’s more than six times the population of Bangor.
It’s an amazing example of a municipal agency building positive relationships with its community, especially in a time when similar agencies struggle to do so. Cotton said there was no intention to gain fame, however; instead, he only wanted to deliver the BPD’s message in a relatable way.
“The one thing I don’t ever say, and I hear police say it all the time, is, ‘We’re trying to show you that we’re human,’” he said. “Well, yeah. I mean, if you don’t know that already, we recruit from the human race. We’re all human and we’re all on the planet together. They know you’re human, but you’re not responding to them like a human.”
So when Cotton, a comedy fan and former BPD detective, was promoted to public information officer, he approached his chief with an idea: to talk to the public like he’d like to be talked to. He got the green light, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It took off. I mean, it took off more so than I expected,” he said. “I’m not a big Facebook fan. It’s a great tool, but I’m not a ‘Facebooker’ in my own time, really, and I pay attention very little to Facebook. But it’s an outlet that allows us to reach people that we would never otherwise reach.”
Now, Cotton’s social media presence and his other creation, the taxidermied Duck of Justice, are creating an indelible connection with the community and presenting those from away with a unique, valuable first impression of the region.
“People think that it’s about the duck, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s about how we’re interacting with people, and the duck is kind of like a key. I mean it’s like a shoehorn to a really tight shoe. People stop by here every day in the summer to have their photo taken with the Duck of Justice…and that gives you a chance to have a conversation.”
“You know, people come to this community and they see what we have,” he said. “They see a real active community with concerts and great restaurants. And so I think we’re having a positive outreach as much as any other…because people say, ‘Oh, the cops are friendly. The whole town must be friendly.’”