An Interview with Jimmy Dahman, Founder and Executive Director of the Town Hall Project

November 9, 2017

Town hall events provide a great opportunity for constituents to speak directly to their elected representatives, request action on important issues, offer feedback on their policy positions, and receive answers in real time. Jimmy Dahman, founder and executive director of the Town Hall Project, gave us some tips on how to be effective at a town hall, what to do if your representative isn’t holding town halls, and how to support your representative if you think he or she is on the right track. He notes that although his organization is focused on the federal level, state legislatures deserve just as much citizen engagement.

How can I make the most of my limited speaking time at a town hall?

Have your question prepared ahead of time and be concise and direct. If you ask a multipart question your representative can answer the easiest of the bunch and retreat to pre-prepared talking points. We also recommend including your personal story and describing how a specific issue or policy will affect you.

I’m angry! Should I sound angry?

Spirited public debate is a cornerstone of our democracy and these are contentious, personal issues being debated. While it is perfectly acceptable to be emotional, yelling or other disruptive behavior is counterproductive.

I don’t want to be rude, but I do want an answer. How can I be persistent without being negative?

Ask a direct, specific question. If you ask for a yes or no answer, you can follow up until you get one. We recommend being persistent without shouting or insulting the speaker.

I’ve never done any public speaking before and I’m nervous! Do you have any advice for me?

Practice makes perfect! Plan what you want to say ahead of time and rehearse. Invite your family and friends to attend; they can also provide support. Remember that your elected representatives need to hear from you in order to effectively represent you. You have every right, and even the responsibility, to show up and speak out.

What can I do if my member isn’t holding town halls?

Call your representatives. Show up at their district offices to ask why they aren’t holding events. Write a letter to the editor. Organize others in your community to do all of the above. You can also organize your own town hall when Congress ISN’T in session and invite your representative. If they decline the invitation, build a crowd, invite local press, and ask questions to an “empty chair” and send the questions to the “missing member’s” office. You can also invite a nearby member of Congress that does hold events to show up and stand in!

I really like my member of Congress/senator; it’s those other ones I can’t stand. Is it worth it to show up at a town hall where there isn’t much disagreement?

It is important to thank your representatives if you think they are doing a good job. Showing up to town halls of people who don’t represent you may stop one of the member of Congress’ constituents from attending the town hall, so we urge you to only attend events hosted by YOUR member of Congress. If you feel the need to be more involved, you can also organize friends and families in other states or districts to show up at events near them!