I have been voting in elections for almost a decade now, but I attended my first Town Hall meeting in December 2016. My congressman, Representative Jared Huffman, had called an “Emergency Town Hall Meeting” to discuss Defending Our Environment & Protecting Our Progress on Climate Change. My attendance was a response to an undesirable election outcome and I wanted to understand where I belonged in this movement.
The San Rafael High School gymnasium bleachers were already packed with hundreds of locals and Rep. Huffman’s associates and allies were seated in metal folding chairs in front of a long table in the middle of the gymnasium. Behind this table sat a panel consisting of Rep. Huffman and three lawyers: Bruce Riordan of the Climate Readiness Institute, Michael Wall of the NRDC, and Drew Caputo of Earthjustice. As I stood in the back of the gymnasium, I was handed a paper upon which I could ask a question that would be added to a pile of questions for staffers to choose from. I also live-tweeted the contents of the Town Hall meeting, which I later collated on Storify.
Town Hall with Representative Jared Huffman in San Rafael, CA (with images, tweets) · priyology
Rep. Jared Huffman of California held a Town Hall with hundreds of Marin County (and then some!) citizens in San Rafael…
At the beginning of the Town Hall, the panel described the precarious state of our global climate and the threats imposed by the new administration. Then followed a series of questions from both the Town Hall audience and community members participating via Facebook Live. Perhaps recognizing the volume of interest, Rep. Huffman’s staff opened up a lectern to ask questions. When this second opportunity to ask my questions opened up, I hurried from the opposite side of the gymnasium to join the line.
As I (im)patiently waited my turn, I was impressed with the wide diversity of questions about threats to National Parks, finding allies across the political spectrum, scientific literacy, conservation of public lands, health care, and job creation. There was even a discussion about the lack of diversity at the Town Hall meeting, despite the disproportionate impacts of climate change to communities of color.
But perhaps the most compelling question of the night came from an ill, elderly woman who lives in Bodega Bay, CA and was concerned about how the impending carbon tax might affect her energy bill (she has energy-consumptive instruments to help treat her illness) and budget (she cannot afford to replace her 1994 sedan with an energy-efficient vehicle on a fixed income).
As a San Rafael local, I frequently receive sympathy for my daily 50-mile commute to and from Bodega Bay (100 miles total). If an ailing woman is willing to drive that distance for a Town Hall Meeting, what excuse do I have to not participate in the political process? To reinforce this point, later that night I would be told, “It’s nice to see someone younger than 60 at these [meetings].”
I slowly inched towards the lectern as the panel alternated among questions from Facebook Live, submitted papers, and the lectern queue. When I finally reached the second position in line, the Congressman read my questions aloud. I would later learn that one of Rep. Huffman’s associates circled the word “scientists” on my paper to encourage him to ask my questions. I have abbreviated and summarized the questions and answers below.
Q1: How can scientists serve their communities?
A1: Scientists need to speak up and participate in political discourse.
Q2: Where else can federally funded scientists look for financial and intellectual support?
A2 : Scientists should work with local stakeholders (state, private, non-profit, etc.) to achieve mutually beneficial goals.
This panel discussion with individuals who litigate on behalf of the environment (and indirectly advocate for the research scientists like myself conduct) gave me pause. They discussed how scientists often distance themselves from such efforts to avoid obscuring their objectivity. But, it was time to step forward — the panel not only recommended, but requested participation from scientists.
As I continue to think about the role I want to play in the year(s) ahead, I have settled on two interlocked goals for my engagement:
Community. We all carry different types of privilege and it is time to leverage that privilege for the greater good — whatever that means to you. My parents breached enormous cultural chasms so that I could pursue a career in ocean and climate science. I will seize the opportunities given to me and speak up as a scientist, a woman, and a person of color.
Communication. We need to learn how to have uncomfortable discussions with people we disagree with. To do this effectively, we must learn to listen carefully and speak thoughtfully. In my case, I plan to talk less and listen more. I am still trying to figure out where I can be most impactful, so I will start by organizing casual discussions with my neighbors at the coffee shop/bookstore down the road to hopefully provide me with some insight.
As a climate change scientist, I often struggle to decouple the personal and professional aspects of my life. But, you do not need to be a restless scientist-citizen like me to engage publicly and politically.
Recall the ill, elderly woman I mentioned above who felt motivated to drive 100 miles in one evening to voice her concerns about how carbon taxes would affect her life. Town halls are public forums where we can converse with our representatives about how their decisions affect us. And that should be motivation enough for anyone to become involved.