It all started innocently enough. I saw a notice in my local paper that my small town would be holding a strategic planning meeting, part of an effort to resuscitate it from the post-industrial malaise that has left so many New England towns in the economic dumps. I’ve never been particularly active in town, but curiosity got the best of me, so I ventured to the local high school on a Saturday morning, parked my car, and crunched across the gravel-strewn lot.

“Are you here for the charrette?” asked a friendly, dark-haired woman in a black coat, who was standing by the path to the door. I said I was, and she handed me a piece of paper. “This is just a guide to some of the language they’ll be using inside,” she explained with a pleasant smile. I took it, thanked her, and continued walking, reading as I went.

The first item on the list said, “You are about to be manipulated.” Hm, I thought. That’s sort of an odd approach, but probably intended to get us thinking creatively. I skipped past the definition of charrette to item No. 3, which told me the plan was to “steer an unsuspecting group into ‘reaching consensus’” — hang on. Unsuspecting? And what was with the air quotes? I scanned the rest of the flyer, and there it was in bold type: Agenda 21.

Suddenly this local planning session had taken on sinister undertones. Now we were enveloped in an international conspiracy, one that would impinge on our liberties and rob us of our rights! And all before most people had even had their coffee.

Grist has written before about the hackle-raising ability of Agenda 21, a United Nations sustainable development plan adopted in 1992. Here are the dastardly goals laid out in that document: “fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems, and a safer, more prosperous future.”

Basic needs met? Living standards improved? Shud-der.

Do I wish Agenda 21 didn’t have a name that sounded like a two-bit spy movie? Of course. I have a feeling if it were called “Hey World, Let’s All Be Safer and More Prosperous,” it wouldn’t be half so alluring a target. But even then it would no doubt have its detractors, those who fear being told what to do by anyone outside the four walls they call home.

So I want that woman from my town, and others who share her views, to know what happened inside that school gym, at that fancily named charrette. For three hours, we talked in groups large and small about our hopes for the future. Young, old, parents, business owners, people who have lived all over the country and people who have never lived anywhere else. Here are a few of the scary things that were said:

  • A father of three said he wished there were more to do with his family downtown so he could spend his money to support local businesses.
  • A mother of two who coaches soccer advocated for improvements to the athletic facilities so people from other towns would see us more positively.
  • An elderly woman hoped for a new senior center because her quilting group had grown so dramatically that some of them now had to quilt in the hallway.
  • A woman suggested relocating the downtown train station so people could have better access to it, and so businesses could flourish around it.
  • Several people said they’d like to see an old-fashioned movie theater in town, one that was affordable and family-friendly.
  • A school principal said it would be great to find ways to build stronger connections between schoolchildren and senior citizens, the two largest groups in our population.

Weirdly, the U.N. operatives in sunglasses and trenchcoats — the ones who had come to force their horrific vision of safety and prosperity on us — didn’t talk much, just lurked in the corners and whispered to each other occasionally.

As the meeting progressed, I kept an ear out for the bolded terms the flyer had warned me to watch out for: sustainable development, smart growth, sustainable communities, green jobs, visioning, and land-use study, all of which were erroneously described as “common euphemisms for Agenda 21.” I heard exactly one of those terms used at my table, as our small group was making a list of our top goals for the town. “We should probably mention smart growth,” said a local realtor. “Though I think that’s an oxymoron.”

Turns out people don’t tend to talk a whole lot about sustainable development and visioning, sneaky U.N. plots notwithstanding. We talk instead about kids, and money, and jobs held or lost, and how we get around, and where our food comes from, and where our taxes go. We want good schools and strong health and money to spare. These conversations are happening in communities all over the country, as people work to make better places for themselves and their families. And that’s what sustainability is all about. No one used the term that day, but it was there in every breath. By definition, sustainability is life, and how we choose to live it. It’s not a dirty word.

Speaking of dirty words, that propaganda in my pocket defined charrette as a “final, intensive effort to finish a project before a deadline.” That’s partly true. But so is this: “A charrette is a meeting to resolve a problem or an issue … [incorporating] useful ideas and perspectives from concerned interest groups.” Of all the concerned interest groups, that woman in the black coat was the concerned-iest. I wish she had come inside with her fellow townspeople to find out what was really happening in there, and to put forth her own hopes for the place we all call home.