How I Went From Peak Think-Piece to Deep Canvassing

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Written by JCA Member Eben Kowler who works in marketing and communications by day, and is a dancer by night. In 2017, he was a part of the Tzedek Institute and volunteers with JCA because it takes more than opinions to change the world. If you're interested in deep canvassing with JCA you can join us on September 10th at Beth Jacob congregation from 9 AM - 4 PM, you can register online here.

June 4th, 2017 – I felt anxious, nervous, tired, worried, scared, and determined. Nine months earlier I realized reading hot takes, explainers, and New York Times best-sellers would never fulfill my need to participate in healing the damage caused by settler-colonialism/racism/slavery/Jim Crow/segregation/red lining in this country. I resolved to not just read about the problem, but to take action. I went through the Tzedek Institute at JCA, and when JCA Organizer Rachel English asked me to join her Deep Canvassing effort I said yes. I had never been a part of any canvass before, but my experience with JCA told me that I would be well trained and organized before we hit the doors. In May we Skyped with trainers from LA, I practiced the script and my stories. But I was still having heartburn when I knocked on my first door.

These 3 canvasses have challenged me to learn and grow more than all the posts and pages I read over the past year combined.

Behind it were a husband and wife who were happy to talk. They thought people of color experienced more than some discrimination, and their Christian faith was what made the issue important to them. Behind the next door, a conversation with a woman and her labradoodle where she shared a story about a high-school friend who was followed in stores by suspicious employees.

My blood-pressure returned to normal and my stomach was no longer a roiling sea of acid. I even felt optimistic. I had made personal connections and talked about real experiences – not just opinions. Maybe the conversations were going to be awkward and peppered with moments of discomfort, but at the very least it was a first step.

My most challenging conversation was in July. I spoke to a white woman was attending a Minnesota high-school as schools in the South were integrating. She told me that she believed everyone was equal and deserved a good life in America, but then went on to share her opinion that African Americans, Syrian refugees, and Somali immigrants use crack, hate America, and are dangerous. When I tried to go deeper, she acknowledged the contradiction but said that she was too old to change her point of view.

An earlier me might have been outraged at her hypocrisy – but that day I thought about how the texture of my opinions feels natural to me, and her opinions must feel equally natural to her. If I had grown up with a different set of norms, where racism was not discussed, with little direct contact with people of color, and media telling me reasons to be afraid and suspicious – my own worldview would be very different.

Since then, I’ve mostly had conversations “on the doors” with people who profess to share my opinion that people of color experience a lot of discrimination today, much of it hidden and implicit. These conversations have challenged my own stereotypes about the suburbs, and given me hope that there could be allies to be found in unexpected places. However, it’s also clear to me that even with good intentions there is still a long way to go before our unconscious biases are brought into the light and rectified – let alone channeled into creating systems that restore with justice instead of divide with fear.

Afterwards, I feel empowered and inspired to have more conversations

After each canvass it would be natural to feel discouraged. People turn you away, rationalize biases, and can seem set in their opinions. But when Rachel reveals how many conversations we’ve had on the doors, I feel empowered and inspired. As a part of an organized effort it feels like my contribution is being amplified and we are more effective together. I keep coming back because in the uncomfortable moments there’s growth. Having conversations with others, even if I’m not changing their minds, is changing me into the kind of person who acts. And that feels powerful.


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