If You Have Something to Share, Leighton is Listening

Leighton Newlin was elected to Princeton Council three years ago (he, and Board of Education member Brian McDonald, are running for Council’s two open seats this November). A local activist and lifetime Princetonian, his political aspirations are truly to benefit Princeton. To do so, he began offering his time weekly, announcing a different shop location each time where residents can just show up and talk. He calls it Leighton Listens. To understand how it works and what it’s doing, we asked Leighton to talk about it with Princeton Perspectives.

Lisa: Leighton, when and why did you start Leighton Listens? Was it your idea or did you learn it elsewhere?

Leighton: Leighton Listens started on April 5, 2023, at Hinds Plaza. It was a continuation of something I did when I initially campaigned in 2021. I put on my mask (Covid) and walked district by district to meet people in just about every neighborhood in Princeton. Not only was I being informed, but I also felt like I was being challenged. After serving on council for a little over a year, I was interested in hearing from and engaging with the community in a more organic way.  I wanted to tap into the vast cultural kettle that exists here in Princeton. To be accessible, local.

I realized that everyone for the most part that appears at council meetings, cared, but that not everyone who cared and who also have strong opinions and or meaningful dialogue came to council meetings and if they did, did not voice their opinions, concerns, or even attaboys, in public. I didn’t want to leave folks out, so I give them an option to spend time with me, one-on-one.

Liz Lempert, during her tenure, met with constituents monthly at the Princeton Public Library for most of her term as mayor. Leighton Listens is at different venues, week by week.


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Lisa: Please describe the residents that come to see you…are they from all walks of life, do you tend to see repeat visitors, are they generally of certain ages? What do they share?

Leighton: People come from all walks of life and for all types of reasons. Repeaters? OMG yes indeed! I do have several people who actually follow me on Wednesdays. Not every Wednesday, but on a normal basis, that stop by to share information or just to say hello.

Some people just stop by to say hello but there are also constant topics, like trash in the CBD [Central Business District], cars do not stop at intersections, of course, run away development and cost of living in Princeton. How about paying closer attention to change orders or adjustments to expenditures in municipal contracts? Town/Gown relationship…Not affordable, affordable housing…Walkability, bicycle safety, University contributions, TRAFFIC…everything and anything. I had one person come by, said hello and got ready to leave. I asked her, “Are you here for Leighton Listens?” She said, “Not really, I just had to come here to see if you were really doing this?”

Business owners are very responsive to Leighton Listens and appreciate the visibility as it brings, so it is building community and business at the same time.

Lisa: Typically, how many people show up each week? Are you packed with residents from beginning to end, have to keep conversations short to get to each, or is there time to sit and talk with residents?

Leighton: The number of people vary. I would say on average 2-3 people. I have also had no-shows twice. On quite a few occasions I have spent the entire time (11-12:30 PM) with one person. Sometimes people show up when I am already engaged, and depending on the conversation, I may ask the person to join in actively or just listen in. Often this becomes a group discussion. I do find that many people come, and if I am already with someone they sit back and chill and wait for me to finish. I’ve noticed that this is usually due to an issue they have, that is more personal in nature.

It is validating to see folks walking towards me on Wednesdays wanting to share information or to be better informed on municipal processes and progress. I do not hurry people even when someone is waiting but sometimes people engaged in conversation, knowing that someone is waiting, will be gracious and yield to others after they have been heard. I also do not have a hard stop at 12:30 PM.

Lisa: Do you find your sessions are more complaint sessions or do people also share thoughts and ideas?

Leighton: Both are true. Complaints for sure and great ideas as well. Complaints come in a variety of different areas. Many about public safety and walkability and bicycles. Transit, mobility, and affordable housing are major areas of concern. OMG “Density and Historic Preservation,” and a budding homelessness situation. Something that came to my attention I might not have known about was there’s a home, newly constructed and never lived in, being used as an AirBnB. I was shocked to find out there was a brand-new house built from scratch that nobody lives in but is an AirBnb. That’s not cool. This guy has been to see me more than one time…when you put yourself out there and give people the opportunity to share, they get very elementary and personal sometimes. They live here and they see what you don’t see. A lot of times they have concerns for the greater good, not necessarily just about them.

Lisa: Can you elaborate on one specific thing that was brought to your attention during Leighton Listens?

Leighton: A resident said that we are going in the right direction with limiting Gas Burning Blowers, addressing climate change and sustainability, however, what about Wood Burning Fireplaces…hmmm? Obviously, we have many million-dollar homes with very expensive fireplaces in them here in town. Who wants to tackle regulating what people can do in their own homes? This is a rhetorical question, but the truth is that you can readily find information on the toxins associated with the burning of wood.

Lisa: How do you think people open up or share differently by making yourself easily available?

Leighton: On many occasions, the people share with me how much they appreciate that I do Leighton Listens. They have either ideas or concerns, but they are not comfortable speaking in groups on their issues which are sensitive and perhaps more personal. They are also not prone to share their views via email, or social media, but will sit down for a cup of coffee. They are comfortable in a non-threatening environment and speak freely and openly. You can see their happiness and contentment in being listened to and heard. They feel valued and validated.

I feel people appreciate you putting yourself out there.  When people know you care…they care.  Authenticity is important to me.  I love being local and managing by walking around.  Being out in the open and being yourself.  When I speak, I want to be heard and I give that respect to the people who come to see me on Wednesdays.  The truth is, I love Wednesdays because it gives me the opportunity to hear Princeton voices without the noise…straight, no chaser!  Wednesdays feed my curiosity and vision for a better, more inclusive, more diverse, more welcoming, more human, kinder Princeton.

Lisa: You show up alone weekly, but please share how this effort is in fact collaborative.

Leighton: Often times after meeting with residents, I reach out to colleagues (copying other members of council) who have greater expertise, or council assignments, in areas specific to the issues or questions that are being raised.

It’s also to municipal staff. For example, last Wednesday, I was at D’Angelo Italian Market and a lady came up to me with her husband and she said she wants to talk about trash pickup, then she emailed me. Her interest is that there are structures, not-for-profits and it appears they don’t pay taxes but may be benefitting from municipal trash/recycle pick up. If they don’t pay taxes, and we pick theirs up like everyone that does pay taxes, is that fair? I’m in touch with engineering to do a little research on that for her. That’s the type of questions that come up. It’s not just me representing myself, I’m bringing department heads, council members and the mayor with me – if I need to connect with someone that has more information than I do.

Lisa: Are these sessions meeting your expectations or is there something you may want to do differently?

Leighton: Two ideas that I have going forward is to add additional days for specific issues/situations/special interests. Also, I am planning to have the mayor, and each of my colleagues join me in Listening Sessions between now and November. We will seek to address issues residents may have in various areas of concentration by elected officials via boards, commissions, and committees.

On Tuesday nights, I’m looking forward to Wednesdays. I love doing this. It’s engaging, it’s management, it’s meeting different people, having conversations, it’s stimulating. When people show up, it’s validating. I am getting a lot more out of this than the people are getting. I’m seeing everybody, they’re just seeing me. I think I’m right where I should be. To represent the people, you’ve got to get out there and touch them.

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