For the past several years, People’s Action has worked on innovative campaigns to engage residents in conservative, often rural, parts of the United States about progressive social change. Their canvassers and activists have worked on issues ranging from health care access to environmental pollution. In talking with residents of regions of the country such as rural North Carolina—areas too often ignored by other progressive groups—they have helped to reshape local political conversations. Now, with a method they term “deep canvassing,” they are seeking, in the run-up to the November election, to impact the national discourse on race relations and immigration. George Goehl, director of People’s Action, talked about this with The Nation earlier this month
Something magical happens in the space of a deep canvass conversation. Some trust opens up, and people are able to go deeper into issues the two people don’t agree on, in ways that result in different outcomes. Fifteen minutes is the average [length of each] conversation. A lot of that other stuff, what we call verbal leafleting, is less than five minutes and there’s very little listening. “Here’s why you need to vote for this person.” You do your rap, there’s little listening. This, there are nuggets of what could help heal the country in this type of approach.
SA: How do you pick whose doors you knock on?
GG: Let me go back, because it may be helpful. As Trump was ascending, People’s Action started having conversations about the need for a more robust role in small-town organizing that was, from its inception, race-conscious, and would work in majority-white areas where people were struggling economically. Soon after Trump was elected, we built some capacity and went out and had 10,000 conversations with people, on their front porches, what they were experiencing, what they were up against. We worked on those issues and won lots of stuff for people. In most cases, even though these were majority-white areas, people moved into a multiracial organization context. It was amazing and profound.
People’s Action started having conversations around the country about the need for a robust conversation, with a race-conscious version of where we wanted to move people; but realizing people’s pain and what they were confronting. Organizing on health care, opioid relief, clean water, fracking. We’ve worked on these issues and won on a lot of stuff. We started to build relationships, having tougher conversations around race. But we’d encounter people who’d gotten very involved, were wearing organizers’ T-shirts, but would confide, “Hey, I’m all-in, but I can’t get with you on immigration.” It didn’t really surprise us; the people who spearheaded the project had grown up in these communities. It lines up with the research: 20 percent of the electorate is cross-pressured on economic and immigration issues. Liberal on health care, minimum wage, money in politics, but regressive on immigration. I think a lot of the future of the country depends on how this group of folks makes meaning around immigration and race. Out of that [idea] is what led to us starting to experiment with deep canvassing.
We ran a first test with thousands of conversations with folks in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—Republicans, independents, and Democrats. So we would be able to understand who’s this working with, who’s this not working with.
There were people in those states swinging back and forth and trying to make meaning of the country—a number of Obama-to-Trump counties; and what are called BOOT Counties, Bush-Obama-Obama-Trump counties. The three local groups [working in the states] were Pennsylvania Stands Up, Down Home North Carolina, and Michigan United. A good number of canvassers were people of color, or immigrants, or children of immigrants. Those canvassers in some cases definitely experienced more resistance, tougher pushback, but also in many cases more transformative conversations. Because they weren’t sharing someone else’s but their personal story. Many times, people at the door would say, “You know what, I’ve never had this type of conversation with an immigrant; I’ve never talked to an immigrant.” In some cases, it didn’t go well. In some, though, there were a lot of hugs and crying. I canvassed in all three states. Someone would signal they were regressive on immigration. The more we listened and shared, but never debated, the more people would say, ‘You know what, I don’t know any immigrants; everything I’ve learned about immigrants I learned about on TV.” You’d watch them realize [during the conversation] that they didn’t know any immigrants. They’d have an aha-moment and you’d watch it literally wash over their face. They’d realize, on their own, “Oh, there is a villain in this moment American life; there’s a reason my trailer is falling apart, that I don’t have health care, that I have three part-time jobs. There’s a villain, but it isn’t immigrants.” Done right, the canvasser doesn’t tell people that. The canvasser creates a space for the person to come to that realization on their own.
SA: What sorts of things happened during that realization process?
GG: It was fascinating. The most conservative white dude would go there. We’d really ask two questions: Help people locate an immigration story in their life—a coworker, a neighbor—and talk about the hardest time in their life, when they really needed help. Everybody would go there with us; a big guy, six feet five, in camos, pickup truck out front, they’d end up sharing. Every time. It’s not something even the people closest to them had ever really asked. There’s some secret sauce here; I think it’s the curiosity and the listening. Listening to learn. A radical empathy for folks. It’s not about where you are at now in terms of your worldview but where you’re willing to go. We have to keep room for the still-waking. It’s that mindset that makes it special. And for the person being canvassed it stands out amid the cancel-culture and the partisanship.
SA: You hired two renowned political scientists, David Brookman, at UC Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, at Yale University—both of whom had previously studied, with the New Conversations Initiative, how one-on-one interactions with people around gay marriage and transgender rights changed public attitudes over time—to study the impact of your deep canvasses. What did they find?
Four and a half months after the conversations, there was [still] a significant shift in people’s worldview and answers to questions around immigration. Those numbers that are in the report are higher than [the shift expected from] a traditional persuasion campaign, a traditional canvas, a media campaign. And at the same time, we’re not naive. We know people go back to a conservative and racist surround-sound. We know one conversation isn’t forever. But how do you scale deep canvass conversations to reach way more people and places? And what is the additional surround-sound to make the most of this? Ideally, these folks come to meetings, have conversations, go through political education, access local media, social media to help create a different media environment for people.
SA: This is all very labor-intensive. Can you do this sort of organizing work in the middle of a pandemic, with all the restrictions that are in place regarding personal interactions?
GG: We’ve pivoted this canvass to phones, with a whole lot of success. We’re having a 15 percent contact rate—which is high in this day and age, and 85 percent of these are sharing a story of vulnerability with us. We call folks, ask people how they’re doing amidst Covid. They’re generally like, “I’m fine.” The canvasser says, “Well, I’m not fine.” Then they say, “Well, I’m not fine either.” And they open up with us because we’ve created for them that space. We’re trying to work out how to create scale through volunteerism. We need at least 10,000 phone callers. As organizers, we’re good at a few things: building relationships and taking to action in the streets. But the pivot to phones is working. Our instinct is it’s in part because of Covid. Because people feel isolated, are stuck indoors, want to connect to people. That’s why phones are working.
SA: I know you’re operating in very conservative, often very rural, parts of the country. And when you mentioned earlier the surround-sound of conservative, racist voices, this wasn’t an abstract observation, was it? My understanding is you’re really, on a day-to-day basis competing for hearts and minds against some very unsavory groups and ideas. Can you talk about this?
GG: For the next 20 to 30 years you’re going to have a bunch of people, mainly white people, who are going to be experiencing some level of economic decline, amidst changing racial demographics. If we’re not there to help them make meaning of what’s happening, someone else will—Donald Trump, Republicans, proud white supremacists. In areas we’re working in, we don’t encounter other progressive groups; we encounter nationalists and white supremacists. As rough as things are amidst Trumpism, I don’t think we’ve hit bottom. We’ve got a choice to get in there and do the hard work, or retreat from a lot of communities and let some of the most evil people in the country shape how people will think about the world. We’re in a period of major progress, and also major backlash.
For People’s Action, we’ve decided deep canvassing could be a transformative strategy for moving people who are conflicted on a set of issues and who are being informed by lots of evil forces, whether they be pro-corporate or racist forces. It could be applied to so many things. Let’s say in a county where there’s a battle over whether we move to a different kind of policing system, or how do we rethink the role of a prosecutor: Deep canvassing is the model you can move in with and have a developed, empathetic conversation with folks who’ve never thought about a thing like that. It’ll be a powerful overlay to the organizing in the community. You can apply it to policing, the Green New Deal, climate change, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and now we’re testing how to apply it to elections. It’s not about browbeating, cancel-culture. Here’s the thing: Nobody wants to be told they’re wrong. The current model of politics is “you’re wrong, and I’m going to convince you you’re wrong and you’re going to suddenly think I’m right.” It doesn’t really work. People are going to be by nature defensive.
SA: Given all that’s going on, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
GG: Here’s what I’m optimistic about. We’re undergoing a cultural transformation in this country, with a growing number of people saying that much of what we were taught or not taught, about race, about gender, about the economy, about masculinity, hasn’t helped us. There’s a massive awakening happening, and I think it’s beautiful. And it’s a rejection of much of what this country was founded on. Going through that is going to be a struggle beyond belief. I think it’s going to be painful as hell. To get to the other end of that, a lot of people are going to get hurt. Yeah, I’m scared of that. Because I think for every big area of progress, people who either don’t benefit from that progress or simply can’t understand it, there will be a backlash. I think we have to figure out how we extend these moments, like the moment for Black Lives that we’re in, and how to mitigate the backlash and be prepared for it. It’s going to be a big part of the next years.