Nathan Williams is no novice to the political process. But suddenly there’s a crop of people newly engaged and eager to participate, and since the November election, he’s been looking for ways to help those people channel their desired activism.
He just didn’t know one idea would turn into a full-time endeavor.
The 36-year-old freelance filmmaker, who has worked on political campaigns off and on since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, was talking to a friend, Jimmy Dahman, another campaign veteran, about the lack of easily accessible information for people who want to meet their members of Congress. So, with a handful of other volunteers, they started compiling schedules of congressional town halls, both in-person meetings and over the phone, and shared it through a Google document in late January, updating the spreadsheet with new information as they got it.
But Williams couldn’t have imagined the overwhelming demand for such a simple database. He said he thought he and a few others would spend several hours a week on their Town Hall Project. Instead it has morphed into a full-time job, with an army of 100 volunteers fanned out across the country each assigned to monitor the goings-on in several congressional districts.
Reminiscent of the 2009 town halls where the newly formed tea party flooded meetings over the impending health-care bill, this year’s congressional town halls — particularly Republican ones — are already seeing similar levels of furor over what is happening in Washington under President Trump. By early February, Williams’s Google document was being shared all over social media, including from celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda:
An image of the Town Hall Project’s website.
In advance of the Presidents’ Day congressional recess, a time when members of Congress typically return to their districts and invite feedback from their constituents, the Town Hall Project has matured from an overloaded online document to a more sophisticated, searchable website.
“In my life, I could not have persuaded some of these people to make a phone call or knock on a door for any reason who are now calling me up and saying, ‘I need to do something, what should I do?’ ” Williams said. “There is nobody inspiring this, or leading this, it’s coming from the ground level in an amazing organic way.”
Every two years, Williams, who lives in Portland, Ore., would join up with a campaign effort in August or September and work through the election to help get out the vote. After this election, he decided he didn’t want his advocacy to be so cyclical. He wanted to work activism into his daily life in big and small ways. For instance, he agreed to teach a workshop at a college in Seattle in March on how to make your activism have effect. He figured the Town Hall Project would be one of those little ways.
Williams and his team do not hide their political leanings. They are progressives, who want their voices heard at a time when their side controls none of the power in Washington. But the Town Hall Project is not overtly partisan. There is information about events for members of both parties. The goal is “the nexis of good government transparency and activism,” he said.
“Engagement is good for everybody, we’re not just targeting one party or another,” Williams said. “We want people to go and engage with their representatives, we want people to hold their representatives to the fire.”
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