FREE SPEECH: The People’s Town Hall

By on May 31, 2017

Locals will talk politics Friday despite the absence of Wyoming’s congressional delegation.

The now famed lawmaker ‘heads’ by Greta Gretzinger, which have become part of a community art installation at Elevated Grounds, will make their way to Miller Park Friday for Jackson’s alternative town hall.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In Jackson Hole, where Wyoming’s congressional delegation has yet to show up for a town hall meeting, those involved in the next public forum on Friday have created a different outlet. The “alternative town hall” will feature art and performances that examine locals’ political frustrations and worries, from health care and public lands to foreign policy and Russia’s contested involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

People and groups can sign up for three-minute slots the day of the event to sing, recite poetry, share visual art, perform comedy sketches, or channel their feelings into any other form of politically motivated art.

“Art unites us and gets away from straight yelling,” said Beth McIntosh, a local artist who helped plan the performance element of the town hall. “We are more similar than different and art is often a great way to see those connections and start building community and good representation in our government.”

In February, at Jackson’s last town hall meeting, artist Greta Gretzinger created caricature portraits of the heads of Republicans Rep. Liz Cheney and Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, who were all invited to the meeting but didn’t attend. Instead, Barrasso was at a fundraiser in Teton Village with ticket prices ranging from $1,500 a head to $5,000 per political action committee.

In the lawmakers’ absence, the portraits became the centerpiece of the town hall and inspired the upcoming alterative town hall’s emphasis on art. “Rather than just having a lot of words—which are important and there are plenty of—you have this artistic expression and I think it was respectful and captured a community vibe,” McIntosh said.

Following the meeting, the “heads,” as they are called, found their way to the walls of Elevated Grounds where people were encouraged to write to their representatives on sticky notes as part of an interactive art installation.

It allowed folks to express themselves in a different way. Those who wrote notes didn’t have to sign their name. They could be candid. (Although they were warned they had to be respectful and appropriate or their note could be taken down.)

One asked Cheney, a Wilson resident, to join a women’s weekly hiking group. Another had only the word “shame.” Some asked questions about Russia and another invited a representative to have coffee.

“People were pointed and they didn’t hold back in terms of how they felt, but no one called anyone a name,” McIntosh said.

The heads, as well as the sticky notes, will be on display at the alternative town hall. People also will have the opportunity to write additional comments and add to the installation.

Other than one gospel song, McIntosh doesn’t know what people will choose to perform at the event. She’s heard some want to stage a die-in, where people lie down and hold signs about health care issues.

While the format alleviates some of the tension and exhaustion for people following these issues, it doesn’t detract from their importance and the gathering will still offer a way for people to talk seriously about policy decisions that impact their lives and the community, McIntosh said.

And while no one expects the delegation to show up, it doesn’t excuse their absence, she said. Enzi and Barrasso are on the all-men committee in the senate drafting a new health care bill. Cheney is a supposed local. They should all be talking to voters.

But Jackson Hole is not alone. The trio has avoided town halls in many other communities around the state. Spokespeople for the missing lawmakers have said town halls are not ways these legislators traditionally interact with constituents. That excuse isn’t good enough, McIntosh said

“The public has changed its need for direct access to their representatives,” she said. “The important piece here is that ‘business as usual,’ is no longer adequate. If they can’t meet the needs of their constituents, they aren’t representing their constituents. They need to adapt to this very humongous groundswell movement from their constituents.”

Jackson’s alternative town hall takes place on Wyoming’s Statewide Day of Action, coined “Do Your Job.” Similar events will take place across the state. All will use the heads Gretzinger created of the Wyoming delegation.

McIntosh said she understands elected officials being scared to attend a public forum with people upset about policy, but it is their job to hear those voices. Plus, whether they come or not, Jackson’s alternative town hall requires people to remain respectful when performing or speaking. No name calling is allowed.

“We don’t have time for that,” McIntosh said. “We have big issues to address.” PJH

Alternative town hall, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 2 at Miller Park in Jackson. Email questions to [email protected]

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