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A Durham Resident’s Guide to Advocacy

Town and school election day has come and gone. Thank you for taking the time to vote yesterday, but we hope you know your job is not over! As a voter, constituent, and an advocate, your voice has power – even when it isn’t election day.

The Town of Durham operates under a town council form of government. The town council functions as the governing body and legislative body, making local laws (called ordinances) and adopting a budget. Durham adopted the town council form of government in 1988 and the 9 members of the town council serve 3 year terms. Learn more about your Town Council here.

At the State Level, we have five Representatives in the House and one in the Senate representing our interests. You can find our representatives and their contact information here.

What is Advocacy?

Think of an issue that is important to you. Perhaps you’re concerned about pedestrian safety in downtown Durham. What can you, as an average citizen, do about it?

Every time you publicly an issue, you are advocating. What does advocacy look like? Perhaps you made a post on social media about the issue or called your town planner or administrator. Maybe you invited your favorite town councilor out for a cup of coffee to express your concern or submitted a “letter to the editor” to a local paper. All the above are examples of advocacy.

Tips for Engaging Your Local Leaders

The most important thing to remember when engaging your local leaders is that they are people. Your town councilors are your neighbors, they shop at the same grocery store as you, and they likely have spouses, pets, children, and/or jobs! With very few exceptions, elected positions in NH are not full-time jobs, so be mindful of that when you reach out. When you phone your Town Councilors, you’re probably calling their home phone or personal cell phone, so please be courteous.

Keeping in mind that your local leaders are human is also a good reminder that they are accessible to you and you probably have a lot in common with them, so take the time to build a relationship with them. They probably drink coffee and they’ll probably have a coffee with you – all you need to do is ask!

Testifying at a Public Hearing

For many people, the word “advocacy” provokes an image of someone in professional garb testifying during a public hearing. This classic example of advocacy is certainly an important way to advocate on behalf of a policy that is important to you, but it also the least convenient way to advocate. Public hearings tend to happen in the evening (for local issues) and during the workday (for state issues). Childcare is rarely, if ever, provided. It also requires a level of commitment many of us are too busy for. Not to mention the fact that, for many, it is terrifying.

All of that aside, testifying at a public hearing can make the biggest difference, especially when the policy or project you’re supporting will draw many opponents. So, here are some tips for testifying at a public hearing:

  1. Bring a friend. This will make you more comfortable, but it will also help your policy pass because there is strength in numbers.

  2. Be brief. Stick to the key points and if you want to say more, put it in a written letter.

  3. Be respectful. Yelling at the decision makers is not an effective way to inspire change.

  4. Be personal. Harness the power of your personal experience or the experiences of your friends and neighbors.

  5. It is OK to be nervous and it is even OK to say that you are nervous.

Advice from Durham’s Leaders

I reached out to a few of our local and state leaders to ask what advice they would give a potential advocate.

Representative Marjorie Smith, of Durham, would urge you to “write something in your own words”. House members don’t have staff and often receive 100 or more comments in a single day, so sending a “canned” message likely won’t result in an engaged discussion. Representative Smith also added a helpful piece of logistical advice: “send it in the body of the email. I don’t open an attachment unless I am absolutely sure of the source”.

Representative Judith Spang, also of Durham, emphasized the importance of not going it alone. “Find others who agree with you and get them to help, each according to what they are comfortable with…. Don’t try to sway decisions by yourself.” Representative Spang also stressed the importance of being factual and to stick to only the most compelling arguments.

Since navigating the process in Concord can be intimidating, Representative Spang added that it is OK to contact the prime sponsor of the bill you are interested in to ask for guidance.

Durham Town Councilor Sally Tobias shared her thoughts on the best way to approach decision makers. “I need to hear from you in a way that gives me some space to consider your concerns without distraction. Email is the best way . It gives you an opportunity to clearly introduce yourself and clarify your concerns or recommendations and it gives me the chance to digest them my own time and place”. She added that the email should include an invitation to sit down and talk face to face.

Councilor Tobias also noted advocates must “be respectful and patient. I may not see your vision or I may have definite walls in front of me to get there. Listen to my perspective but don’t allow my opinion to diminish your goal. Good advocacy requires perseverance”.

Both Councilor Tobias and Representative Spang agree that speaking up at a public hearing is the most important piece. Spang referred to testifying in Concord as “the most persuasive thing you can do”.

Want to learn more?

Read this piece by Strong Towns on Getting a Response from Local Leaders and sign up for an Advocacy Training held by NH nonprofit New Futures!

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