Article by Jenny Ulum, Obie Companies
When I joined the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce as my own business back in 1995, I was excited to sign up and become a member in my own right. My enthusiasm came as a bit of a surprise even to me. After all, I had been active in the chamber ever since I began working for a member organization in 1987, so involvement was nothing new. But joining under my own name meant something to me—not just for the connections or the business opportunities but because I wanted to be part of something bigger, something that I couldn’t do on my own. To me, the value of chamber membership is our collective ability to create a community where businesses can thrive, kids and families flourish, job opportunities abound and people can fulfill their dreams.
Nowhere is that collective strength more apparent than around advocacy, which is where I personally invest my volunteer time with the chamber. An individual voicing a point of view can have some impact. Multiply that times 1,200 and the impact increases exponentially. One of the many things I love about Eugene is that we are still small enough where a group of individuals working together can be heard and make a difference.
Being heard doesn’t necessarily translate into getting our way. If a position we favor didn’t prevail, that doesn’t mean advocacy doesn’t work or no one listened or no one cares what we think; it just means that another position—held equally dear by its proponents—prevailed. No one gets their way all the time. The important thing is to remain engaged in the process, through victories and defeats (keeping in mind that victories may be incremental and defeats temporary). As long as we keep the doors open and the lines of communication flowing, we retain our ability to be at the table and shape public policy.
Advocacy, like many things in life, is about relationships. And as anyone who has been part of a family or a work team knows, relationships require effort. The time to build the relationship isn’t when we need something—it’s when we don’t. To be effective, relationships need to be authentic, based on a genuine interest in working with someone to achieve an outcome.
Relationships can’t be delegated. Our chamber staff works incredibly hard to get to know our civic leaders and to advise them on chamber positions. I find they are respected for their knowledge and the members they represent. But they can’t do it alone.
Over the years I’ve observed that the chamber doesn’t always recognize its own strength. We buy into the tired, outdated stereotype that Eugene is anti-business and hostile to its taxpaying employers. When you think of it, that’s kind of silly. Our community’s leaders know what drives the economy and they value and appreciate the role of its businesses. A silver lining of the last recession was that it cast into stark relief the fragility of businesses and that they can’t be taken for granted.
Our leaders not only want to hear from us, they need us. If we don’t speak up, the only voices they will hear are from those who have never made payroll and who have no inkling of all the trade-offs and sacrifices and costs involved in making a business go. We have information and a perspective that is valuable in the decision and policy making process—it’s up to us to share it.
If public officials don’t understand what their proposals do to us, it’s our job to educate them. And while we’re at it, we should keep our ears open and listen. We might learn something, too.
Advocacy can be uncomfortable. Many of us find it distasteful. Like democracy itself, it’s messy. Churchill said democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others. Under a democracy, we get the government we ask for. If you’re not part of the conversation—part of the ask—then you forfeit your right to complain about the results.
So the next time you see a chamber Advocacy Alert, don’t hit delete and think that someone else will show up. Don’t set it aside for later. Even if it’s not “your” issue show up, engage and support your chamber. Let our leaders see the faces of their business community. After all, to know us is to love us! I’ll look forward to seeing you at an upcoming public meeting
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