Town Halls Are Vital To Our Democracy

03/09/2017 06:22 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2017

Recently the news has been dominated by the topic of town hall meetings taking place, and some not taking place, across the country. Unfortunately, many congressional representatives have decided not to hold or skip these community meetings, betraying the people they represent and seeing them as paid activists engaging in theatrics to undermine our democracy. As a former congressional aide and now California State Assemblymember who has organized and participated in hundreds of town halls, I could not disagree more with the Republican characterization of the activism we are seeing. Whether it’s people coming out now who are frustrated with the current administration’s policies or those that spoke out against the Affordable Care Act in 2009, these individuals deserve to be heard.

As an Assemblymember, I believe that there is nothing more important than ensuring that I am accessible and accountable to those that I represent. This is why I routinely hold community meetings and town halls: to make sure that anyone in my community has an opportunity to hear from me about the pressing issues facing our state, but more importantly so that I have an opportunity to hear from them. What I hear may be positive or it may be negative, but I am there, committed to listen, regardless. I can say with certainty that the conversations I’ve had at community meetings and town halls during my time in office have made me a better representative, more able to meet the needs of my community.

This past week I held my latest town hall with Congressman Brad Sherman and State Senator Bob Hertzberg. We took questions for over two hours from individuals of all backgrounds, religions, ages and income levels. While it was a diverse crowd, those present all had one common desire: to ensure that their voices were heard by their representatives. As we listened, I was inspired and energized by the passion and interest people had in their government.

Many expressed dismay at the aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric coming from Washington while others shared stories of immigrant friends and neighbors who contributed to the community. Some told stories of how the Affordable Care Act had saved their lives, and yes, some expressed concerns over rising costs. Some asked what we would do to defend access to women’s reproductive healthcare and others wanted to know what was being done to make sure that the progress made in the fight against climate change was not lost.

It quickly became clear that those who attended my town hall did not just do so out of anger or frustration, but in an effort to find out how they could be more involved to improve their communities and make their government more responsive to them. As I walked through the crowd at the end of the event, the one question that continued to resurface was, “What can I do?”

In the days after the town hall, I have thought a lot about how to answer this question. Here are five ways concerned Californians can get engaged in our community and fight back against this current administration’s policies.

  • If you are alarmed by the immigration and refugee policies as well as the President’s Executive Orders, there are many ways to support organizations that provide support and legal guidance to immigrants in our community, including Bet Tzedek which is located near my district in Los Angeles. Whether you are an attorney, law student, or even just someone hoping to make a difference in the lives of immigrants, you can learn how to become involved at http://www.bettzedek.org/get-involved/. Another excellent resource is the National Immigration Law Center which can be reached at (213) 639-3900 or at www.nilc.org. Finally, you should consider supporting humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee in Los Angeles at (818) 550-6220 or https://www.rescue.org/united-states/los-angeles-ca, which is dedicated to protecting refugees who are fleeing conflict zones and seeking shelter and safety for their families.

  • If you are concerned that access to women’s reproductive healthcare is going to be limited and undermined under new Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, reach out to Planned Parenthood at (877) 855-7526 or email volunteer2@ppmarmonte.org to find out how you can become involved. You can also learn more about getting involved through the Center for Reproductive Rights which can be reached at (917) 637-3600 or at www.reproductiverights.org.

  • If you are concerned about the nation’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, find out who your local school board representative is and call to ask what they are doing for our children. Better yet, join the local PTSA or even volunteer at a school library or after school program. If you live in the Los Angeles area, here is how to become involved with the Los Angeles Unified School District at http://home.lausd.net/ and an after school program, LA’s Best, at http://www.lasbest.org/involved.

  • If it is important for you to ensure California’s leadership in addressing climate change, consider becoming more involved by joining your local Sierra Club chapter to advocate for comprehensive policies that will protect our environment. Find your local chapter and learn how to become involved at http://www.sierraclub.org/chapters. The Natural Resources Defense Council is another resource to help fight against climate change and protect valuable natural resources. You can learn more at www.nrdc.org.

  • If you are concerned with the amount of homelessness we have in our community or the policy priorities of the president’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, join local groups advocating for more housing and also consider volunteering for non-profits that help the homeless like Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission. To learn about opportunities to help the homeless, donate blankets and clothing, and even serve hot meals, learn more at http://www.hopeofthevalley.org/opportunities. Those looking to advocate for affordable housing can also do so through the Housing Rights Center, http://www.hrc-la.org, and the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, http://www.scanph.org/.

It is difficult to predict what is to come in the next four years, but what we can do is learn how to make a difference in our own communities to combat the fear, anger, and uncertainty stemming from the rhetoric of the new administration. I hope that all of those who have become more engaged in our communities and government, participated in marches and rallies, and attended town halls not only stay engaged, but also turn this passion and energy into actions that will be more powerful than anything any one politician can do alone.

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