Heather Martin ’93 has served as a family systems specialist, head of the Hancock County Democratic Party, with the Maine Civil Liberties Union, as Executive Director of the Maine Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and currently as Director of the Criterion Theatre.  Martin recalls not being a tremendously involved youth, in spite of both her parents being active in social justice movements as ministers and teaching her the importance of “knowing the structure so you could use it.”  She matriculated at COA intending to study art education and museums.  Reflecting on her youth, she describes herself as “painfully shy, pretty vocal in high school…[though] quiet in every other way.” 

Discovering Socrates

In her first term at COA, Martin’s advisor told her, “The only thing I’m going to tell you is to go take a course with Don Meiklejohn.”  She took his advice, registered for “Philosophy of the Constitution,” encountered the Socratic Method for the first time, and went on to take everything he taught, in addition to a few independent studies.  “Because of Don, I sat on Steering Committee, and I ended up chairing it and moderating ACM,” she says.

She found that engaging in governance at COA gave her a framework within which she could be social. For example, she chaired the Student Activities Committee her first year. It was in this role, she says with an impish smile, that she fired the band Phish, due to their advertisements for alcohol, which “no one could even buy!”

Dealing with disillusionment

There were many opportunities for Martin to exercise her voice and agency, although the system itself sometimes discouraged her.  She started at COA with “such an idealistic vision of governance,” she says, that it was really hard when professors would tell her, “Don’t go to ACM—It’s a waste of time!” Or when ACM decisions were being overruled. 

“The disillusionment was really hard,” Martin says.  “Fortunately, a couple of professors had a hand on my back and said, ‘Get back in there!’”  In the end, her senior project was a comprehensive look at the role of students in governance. 

Comparing her years at COA to her activism and work in the political arena, she opines, “At least we’re not as bad as the federal government.  It was nowhere near as discouraging as when you play with the actual thing.” When Equality Maine and Planned Parenthood endorsed Susan Collins over Shenna Bellows, whose campaign she scheduled, she claims, “It broke my faith.” Reflecting on her political activism, she waxes philosophic. “For me, politics and participation is all about how a community is going to govern itself,” Martin says. “The answer to bad legislation is more discussion, about humanizing the other point of view, and not just about whether you are a Republican or Democrat.” 

The power of politics

Thinking on specific things she learned from her participation in governance at COA, she begins a list, elaborating each item with examples from her COA experiences as well as from work with the Maine Civil Liberties Union.  “Knowing Robert’s Rules of Order was incredibly helpful…It gives you something to pause with and gives some order to a difficult moment,” she says. She describes using the ACM’s parliamentary procedures to “evict a trustee” who was “out of order,” continuing to debate when the question had been called.  “There’s empowerment through rules….He was just pissed, but it was the right thing to do. It was democracy prevailing.”

Martin also attributes her experience with COA governance with teaching her how to deal with political machinations, and how to “whip up a vote” in her career.  For example, when the Maine legislature was debating racial profiling laws and it looked as if there would be a majority supporting them, she began calling businesses and chambers of commerce who would be negatively impacted.  Ultimately, the threat of boycotts helped to turn the tide to oppose these laws, which would have authorized racial profiling among law enforcement. 

Learning to speak truth to power also served her in advocating for transgender rights.  “The moral arguments weren’t winning the day,” Martin says. “Ultimately, the debate centered around big versus small government.”  

“I broke all the rules of decorum and said, ‘Are you going to lift up my skirt and check?’ It’s about learning how to find the vote when you need it.” 

Participating in college governance also gave her invaluable practice working with people whose views may differ greatly from her own. For example, while working for the MCLU, she spent a lot of time with the Christian Civic League, as she says, “identifying the things we could all oppose,” and later, working on the opposite side from her former allies on a different issue. 

Governance as a living lab

When I ask her what recommendations she would give new students about participating in governance at COA, her response surprises me, although it shouldn’t.

“Reading by-laws is amazing.  Often stuff that no one realizes is there is so important.  You can get some massive leverage just by doing what’s been written down,” Martin says. “The thing I loved most about COA was that governance was a living lab. You could make mistakes, write legislation, fix things.…It’s every bit as important as what goes on in the classroom….It’s how we become good citizens. It’s just practice, practice, practice!” 

She’s thankful for COA’s President, Darron Collins ’92, who has expressed the view that it’s okay to screw up and make a mess.  “College,” she says, “is the place to do that.”