By Track Trachtenberg
I am standing in this man’s driveway. I have stopped him mid-unloading his groceries; he is holding a 12-pack of soda under his arm. We have been talking for ten minutes about xenophobia and immigration and what he refers to as “those radicals.” I have not explained that I am one of those radicals. I am also sweating profusely, partially from the effort of active listening but mostly from the heat.
Welcome to deep canvassing.
To back up, we should first acknowledge that I often say I hate canvassing. I find it emotionally exhausting, and walking up to strangers’ doorsteps as a trans person adds an extra level of anxiety. (As a white, trans masculine person, I am much safer than I could be, but I still feel my vulnerability.) However, I firmly believe that deep canvassing is incredibly important, often transformative, for both the canvasser and the canvassee. It was only when I found myself around a table of leaders that shared both my hatred and my commitment - and that were willing to be honest about both - that I realized how much potential JCA’s deep canvasses had.
Back up further. JCA’s Decriminalizing Communities Campaign has taken a three-part approach in the past few months, splitting energy between direct action, pre-election candidate forums, and deep canvassing. The Decriminalizing Communities Campaign is a part of a larger coalition of 27 organizations demanding drastic transformation of the criminal justice and immigration systems in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. (For more information on the coalition and the demands, please see this website: https://decriminalize.squarespace.com/.) As part of the deep canvass leadership team, it was my job to help plan three full-day events, where we would come together in a group of 20 or so for a morning training on deep canvassing and an afternoon of practicing those skills out on the doors. Deep canvassing isn’t the canvass style that many of us became comfortable with one (or likely both) ends of in the weeks immediately preceding the election: getting a yes or no out of someone, giving them some facts, and moving on. This is not to knock electoral organizing; goodness knows that matters. Deep canvassing is simply a different model. It’s about getting someone to realize that their deeply-held values and lived experiences don’t line up with the policies they’ve said they’re behind. It’s about shifting society away from white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, step by difficult step, through full-length conversations, active listening, and sharing our own stories. A wise JCA member named Abbie Shain once told me that when we canvass, we are not interrupting someone’s day; we are inviting them into a movement. In a society where white supremacy requires isolation and individualism, these conversations with strangers can be radical acts.
This is not to say that most people’s opinions shifted entirely in the course of conversation, but the deep canvassing model does not assume they will. Rather, as I was originally taught at a Showing Up for Racial Justice deep canvass training, it is about shifting people one step further along a continuum towards anti-racism, planting a seed that will keep them thinking. A seed that, over time, can lead towards them unpacking and shifting their beliefs and actions. When I had a good day - when I was “on” as a canvasser - I watched people shift as we spoke. I watched them watch themselves shift, and realize that they had more rethinking to do. And when I wasn’t at my best and my impact felt more neutral, I came away having practiced these skills and these conversations. I felt more prepared to be a better canvasser next time, and even more importantly, to have and complicate these conversations in my day-to-day life. This work is most effective when it is built on pre-existing relationship, and the practice I gained deep canvassing made me less afraid to have these conversations with folks I know as well. And when folks already agreed with us, they often signed a postcard to their county commissioner asking her to get ICE out of our criminal justice system.
There is one last thing that I want to say about deep canvassing with JCA. It was so powerful to show up each month to an intergenerational, multi-gender room - a room where some folks were JCA staff and some folks didn’t identify as Jewish and hadn’t even heard of JCA until recently. We brought people in. We helped them grow, and grew with them ourselves. We carpooled together and got to know each other, building the types of relationships that make effective organizing possible. And as a young queer person, it felt incredibly affirming to be able to lead those rooms; to be trusted to lead a partially-spiritual space as a queer person who still forgets that that’s allowed. To be trusted to co-facilitate a multi-hour training, as a 22-year-old, for folks two and three times my age. In a world where systemic hierarchies delegitimize many of our skillsets, this leadership felt so radical.
Let’s go back to that man’s driveway. It was not the perfect conversation. I left realizing some moments where I wished I’d responded differently. However, it was a conversation where I watched him shift. I watched him rethink, albeit slowly, his perception of undocumented immigration. By the time I left, still having not identified myself as one of “those radicals” but holding a perspective he knew was clearly left of his, he had told me that he’d never found someone so willing to listen before and he was now more open to talking to left-leaning folks about these topics and hearing our viewpoints. Ever so slowly, his xenophobia and his unwillingness to engage were cracking.
There is a lot I took away from deep canvassing. I have seen another world of organizing, based on connections, where your role is about your skillsets, where queerness and youth don’t prevent me from leading a room. I brought back fistfuls of postcards demanding that local law enforcement stop working with ICE.
And I hope, and believe, that many of the people whose doors I knocked on are still thinking, or at least will think differently next time this topic comes up for them. Our conversations planted a seed. It is our job now to keep watering it.