Columnist Johanna Neumann: Grab a clipboard, knock on a door

  • Giselle Nevarez, right, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, gets canvassing instructions from Sanders campaign volunteer Jenn Moore before heading out from the Northampton campaign headquarters, Feb. 22, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/28/2022 12:51:33 PM
Modified: 4/28/2022 12:50:06 PM

In a recent conversation with an acquaintance about work, I explained that my colleagues and I were working hard to get our summer canvass offices launched. My acquaintance asked, “Does canvassing even work anymore?”

When I rephrased the conversation to a friend the next day she quickly replied “It’s the only thing that does.” Here’s why I agree with her analysis.

Canvassing, more effectively than the vitriol or echo chambers of social media or the passivity of advertising, has the power to bridge the political silos that divide us and help us find areas of commonality.

Canvassing is the process of going through an area to solicit political support, often via in-person door-to-door outreach. A public interest organization might canvass for many reasons, including raising visibility for their group and their issue, raising money, and building their membership. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that the act of canvassing strengthens our democracy.

How does canvassing strengthen democracy?

We live in a polarized country, with more and more people getting news and information from sources they agree with. Republicans are increasingly turning to Fox News and Democrats to MSNBC, and social media algorithms feed each of us the content we want to see. As a result, we may be exposed to a very different stream of information than our neighbor or folks living one town over.

Meanwhile, issues that affect us all, regardless of political affiliation or the culture war topic du jour, go unaddressed. Often, that’s because powerful interests hold an outsized influence over how decisions get made. From air pollution to toxic PFAS contamination of our drinking water, to litter on our roadsides and in our waterways, the list of solvable problems that affect everyone and that are being stymied by narrow special interests goes on and on.

Canvassing offers a way to bring people together around a common cause.

I’ve canvassed on many issues all across the country. In New Orleans, I canvassed to build support for cleaning up pollution from America’s oldest and dirtiest power plants. In Hartford, I canvassed to build support for reducing mercury pollution. At the time one in three women in America had levels of mercury in their blood high enough to damage their unborn child. I canvassed for electoral candidates in Virginia, Florida and New Hampshire. In my hometown of Amherst, I’ve led canvassing campaigns to build support for a new elementary school building, year-round democracy and a new library.

In each of these campaigns, knocking on doors and ringing doorbells brought me face to face with some people who agreed with me, some who disagreed with me, and some who were undecided.

The ability to win some people over, persuade the undecided, and especially find people who agree with you and mobilize them can be the difference between progress on an issue or stagnation. Talking to one person and then another and then another and giving each one the opportunity to get involved, is a time-tested winning recipe for building broad and diverse support for your cause. It’s how you reach out beyond the “usual suspects” and bring new people into the movement. And it’s how you get your finger on the pulse of a neighborhood and a community.

That’s something even the best digital advertising or targeted Facebook campaign can’t replicate.

Early on in my career as an organizer, going out into communities and talking to strangers pushed me beyond my comfort zone in many ways. I was terrified to knock on doors, initiate political conversations, and ask for support.

And it can be hard work. There are moments of flat-out rejection. Potentially even more heartbreaking, there are people who support your cause but won’t get involved. There are cold rainy days and hot humid days.

But doing hard things can be worthwhile. You hone your skills and become more effective. I learned, through my canvassing experience, that with a fire in my heart and a bit of training, even I, a girl who was terrified of talking with strangers, could learn how to build political power to make a difference.

Countless other organizers and activists, including Cesar Chavez, who fought for farmworkers’ rights, and Lois Gibbs, the mother of the modern toxics movement, share a similar story: that their cause became a movement when they grabbed a clipboard, found a well of courage, and knocked on the door of a stranger to organize them.

So, does canvassing even work anymore? Hell yes, it does. And it’s as important and necessary as ever.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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