Emo(tion)jis as Sparks for Action: Reflections on the Deep Canvass

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Eli Edleson-Stein is a youthworker, activist, and filmmaker based in Minneapolis. He volunteers with JCA because centering justice work in his spiritual community and tradition is important. 

I am a younger sibling, the baby of my family. I have grown up a lot since I was an actual baby (I think my family would attest to this,) but at times I still act like a baby (my family would attest to this, too.)  

As I’ve grown, I have noticed a persistent baby-ism of mine: I roll my eyes when someone says something stupid, becoming the embodiment of a row of eleven eye roll emojis. In my reflections on this pattern I’ve come to recognize that my eye roll is not a simple physical response, but more a pervasive mindset: when someone says something stupid -disagreeable, wrong, or ignorant- I roll my eyes and dismiss, discredit, and disengage completely. I don’t have time or energy for this. I can’t even!

Obviously there are other emojis that come after or before the eye roll: the angry one, the fearful one, the tears emoji, the baffled one.

But those emo(tion)jis are sparks for action. The eye-roll is a damper to inaction.

It’s a problem. It is a divisive reaction that lends itself to self-righteousness, not righteous action.

Deep Canvassing with JCA has pushed me beyond the eye-roll towards righteous action. It has pushed me into that very Jewish holy-covenant-space between people.

Before my first Canvass I remember being a mix of skeptical, nervous, and interested. I thought what good is this going to do? I assumed that as I knocked on doors I would encounter either too-comfortable neo-liberal white folks or conservative trump-supporting white folks, and either way our conversations would lead nowhere.

Behind the first door was a conversation with a 65 year old Japanese-American woman who has worked in health care for her entire life. We agreed on most points; she said she was interested in what her neighbors would have to say, and wore a concerned and curious look. She was encouraging, and told me that her neighborhood “really needed this work badly.”

The next conversations were more challenging. I spoke with a white family who couldn’t understand “why those people lived the way they did” and a middle-aged white woman who said, “I know there are some good ones, but the bad ones just ruin it for the rest of them…” Often on the doors, I have encountered people using coded language to reinforce cultural stereotypes.  

These are people, that in other circumstances, I would have rolled both my eyes and myself directly out of conversation. But part of growing up (not being a baby), is doing things that feel hard, often things that are in direct opposition to our knee-jerk, baby-sibling responses. Deep Canvassing is about growth (a.k.a. change!)

So I stayed at their doors. I shared stories about people that I love, my concerns about how individual biases feed systemic oppressions affecting me and people I care about, and my own missteps and misconceptions. I invited them to share their stories, to get out of the cloud of opinion or politics and into the real experiences of their lives. And then there were these little moments in which I felt that holy space between people open up: a tiny, heart-emoji-shaped blip on the radar.

Every time I door knock and talk to people about their experiences, I grow out of my eye-rolling baby-ism a little bit. And every time I do that on a porch, or a stoop, or under an awning, I bring someone along with me. We grow a little taller together.

The guards of theory and prejudice are lowered, and for a moment the person on the other side of the threshold hears a perspective that they couldn’t have considered without me. They reciprocate what I am doing, listening non-judgmentally and inviting real connection (very Jewish, I think.) It’s a new emoji: instead of hearts for eyes, it’s hearts for ears! And suddenly our unlikely connection is a mirror for them to examine their assumptions.

In that moment, the same white family who “couldn’t understand” at the beginning of our conversation, shared a look of recognition. In that moment, they recognized, in a small bit, the humanity and struggle of another person in our world, and their humanity in their own harmful assumptions. Standing in their doorway, the father said, “huh, I guess I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m gonna think about that one.” And together we grew.

Jews are a people of the covenant. Our existence is one in relation to G-d, in covenant; G-d, too, exists in relationship. It’s like Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber thought: G-d lives in the interstitial space between me and you. So if G-d lives between people, in negotiation, in earnest connection, it becomes our Jewish responsibility to keep G-d alive by engaging with people.  

When we choose to roll our eyes, we choose to close the space between people, we delete a covenant, and G-d begins to disappear. Deep Canvassing is about fulfilling our covenant to love our unconsciously racist neighbor, to activate G-d in our connections, and to repair, to tikkun, the tiny cracks of our world.


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