How to Resist: Canvassing

Step 3 (of 4) in this guide to getting involved with grassroots organizing

January 22, 2020 at 9:00 am

Hello hello hello and welcome back to How to Resist. This is a series dedicated to all you folks out there who share this dread about what is happening to our planet, but are not sure where to even begin in your path to resistance. In the first piece, we talked about how to get involved, and in last week’s piece, we discussed what it is to like to be a phone banker. This week, we’re talking about canvassing. 

What is Canvassing?

Canvassing is similar to phone banking in that it utilizes similar scripts. The primary difference is instead of being on the phone, you are looking the person in the eye after knocking on their door, or stopping them on the street. It is a much more personal interaction; some of the best conversations I’ve had in my life happened while on the clock canvassing for Greenpeace.

However, before we get into the thick of it, I’d like to clear some things up. Most essays I’ve read about canvassing are definitely written by someone who only did it for a day, or maybe a week. Additionally, television shows and movies tend to frame canvassing as some kind of temp job that young people do in between things. They like to present canvassers as bubbly, kind of socially inept people that pester people. Amazing show though it may be, The Good Place is definitely guilty of this.

The truth is, a lot of big activist figures canvassed. Martin Luther King knocked on doors, as did Cesar Chavez. As did AOC. As does anyone who is grassroots. It’s powerful, and I kinda love it.

What to Expect 

Here are some things to expect when stomping pavement for a cause:

  • There will be a script and practice time. Generally, these scripts are going to be shorter because 1.) You have to memorize it seeing how you cannot really read off it at the door, and 2.) Overtalking is a thing, especially in canvassing. We’ll get to that. Now, if memorizing worries you, don’t worry. The script will be simple; really, you just need to know the bullet points and speak from the heart.
  • There will be food and water provided. Additionally, a lot of people at the door (if they get what canvassing is) generally will offer you water.
  • You’ll be given a very specific place to go. Maps can either be digital through the PDI app (a political data map that imports voter records to make maps), or given to you via paper printouts. If you do have to carry paper maps, I would advise not using a clipboard to hold them together. One time, while waiting for a woman to come to the door, a five year old girl saw me and my goofy clipboard and said, “Mom! It’s a solicitor!” and I had never felt more like a huckster in my life.
  • Generally, you won’t be knocking on every door. Most canvasses are targeted at certain addresses via voting records. (I.e. If you’re canvassing for Bernie, you are not canvassing Republicans.) If you’re canvassing with a union, they’ll only have you talking to union members. However, there is such a thing as cold knocking, and that’s when you knock on everything. That’s when one small stretch of street can take you an hour, and that is non-partisanship at its finest.
  • You will make friends with many dogs. It’s inevitable.

Tips for Canvassing

Canvassing is very tricky to explain in full, largely because it’s one of those things you just have to do to get a handle on. There are just so many spicy details, like “If the person you are talking to gets distracted by a passing car, don’t acknowledge the car, because then the person will keep staring at it. Keep your eye contact and they will come back to you.” But, you probably won’t remember that until after it happens. There’s a lot of counter-intuitive things you have to learn and unlearn, but I’m going to do my best to dig into some broad stroke tips.

  • Always lead with “How are you?” Behind each door is a human being, and to make the most of your interactions, you want to get to know people. Feel free to make comments on your surroundings — like, “I enjoy your mustard-flavored paint job. Is that Dijon?” or “Are those your dogs photoshopped onto that Downton Abbey poster?” (Both are real things I’ve said. Only one of these guys signed up to donate monthly with me though. Can you guess which one? It was the mustard guy. Go figure.) Anyways, this is called Active Listening, or as we called it in our Greenpeace office, “Operation Earlobe.” Always be earlobin’.
  • Come well prepared. Though the organizers may provide food and water, you should bring some back-up snacks just in case, along with a portable charger for your phone if you’re worried about your battery. Finally, before any canvas you will want to look over your map and mark off things like: public restrooms, places to refill your water, and where to meet up. Additionally, plan a route before you set out so you don’t double over anything.
  • You don’t need to talk for nearly as long as you would think. The human brain can honestly only understand so many words at once, so brevity is key here. My first rain forest pitch went something like We only have 17% left of our ancient rain forest. Corporations burn it down to make way for things like palm oil plantations, which is then used to make cookies and snack food. This is wrong because a third of our oxygen supply comes from the rain forest and … Have you spaced out yet? I know I just did writing that. My boss’s pitch was a lot more streamlined. We’ve lost more than 80% of our rain forest to corporations… you get why that’s bad, right? Okay, cool. Just assume that people already get it; it’ll help.
  • Don’t worry about “No soliciting!” signs. They have no legal precedent. If you talk to people in a genuine way and ask them to donate to an org, a lot of the time they’ll forget they have that stupid sign up. As my old boss says, “Cesar Chavez did not get shit done by ignoring the houses with No soliciting! signs.
  • If someone is in their garage, don’t knock. Stop and bellow “HELLO!” to get their attention. Garages are spooky because surely the people within them are up to something. But if you stand your ground and say “HELLO!” people will look to you, see how badass and assertive you are, and generally walk over. My friend who has been a canvasser for three years calls these “Tim Allens.”
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve met many Trump supporters who still support major environmental causes, to the point of giving to them, and on the flippity, I’ve met folks with “Black Lives Matter” signs who really couldn’t give less of a shit. People are complicated, and that’s why this work is so hard.

What Should I Prepare Myself For

Canvassing can be draining, and definitely falls under that “jobs that experience emotional labor” banner. As someone who did it before, here are some of the not so glamorous aspects of the work:

  • You will encounter apathy. Generally, people understand that we have more than a few issues on this li’l planet of ours, but feel so struck down by their own lives that they don’t want to hear about any of it. However, we need them. If our movements had enough people power backing them, climate change would be packing its bag right now. We keep showing up because eventually, someone will break through to that person. You have to trust the work, and believe in people.
  • A lot of people will have phony bologna excuses. The day that a canvasser walks into a neighborhood is the same day a bunch of people coincidentally have to hop onto a conference call. Don’t be hurt by it; you probably wouldn’t want to have a conversation with those people anyways.
  • You’ll find that a lot of people seriously need to seek out therapists. I’m told that the way I canvas is particular emotional, which explains why I had three criers in a row one day, complete with one hug. People should chill out on the emotional labor gambit, but it’s important to get that a lot of people out there are suffering. It definitely helps put your own personal problems into a greater context.
  • People say the most wild shit sometimes. Life is complicated, and by now we have a lot of answers to our problems, but many don’t like those answers and don’t wish to be accountable, and turn to bad answers to real problems (hence Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists). When California was literally on fire in 2018 and you could see a blanket of smog hovering over the entire city, I talked to way more people than I’d like to admit seemed to believe believe that “the government was burning their own state down to make room for an underground bullet train.”

How to Get Started

But despite all that, canvassing works. You go to doors, you hold people accountable, you build a badass, grassroots movement. Yes, sometimes people aren’t too kind about it, but you can laugh at them later. 

Let’s talk about how to get involved:

  • Any candidates and ballot initiative will always need canvassers. You can canvas for Bernie in your hometown, or you could canvas for an underdog in a Senate race, or even someone running for City Council. It’s all important, and it’s all something you can do.
  • MoveOn and SwingLeft are both groups that canvas during election seasons. MoveOn works on races for the House of Representatives, and SwingLeft works on Senate races.
  • Any group that focuses on passing legislation will canvas. Groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Action Fund run canvasses. But, you might have better luck if you search for public advocacy groups; they will definitely have turf to stomp on.

In our Greenpeace office, we sometimes called canvassing “a pressure cooker for emotional development.” Over the course of a year, I definitely became a better person through the challenge of knocking on doors. Personally, I think everyone who is physically capable of canvassing should give it a shot because it’s a great way to learn a lot of things really fast. 

With that said, we are moving onto lobbying — not the spooky big money style of lobbying, you don’t need skill to do that — but lobbying of a grassroots flavor. This is one of the most powerful and direct ways to hold elected officials accountable, which is really important in a time like this where we need progressives in office. See ya then!

Katrina Jagelski

Katrina Jagelski is an environmental justice and anti-corruption organizer. They have collected all 900 Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild for some reason.