To Convince & Connect

Following last week’s blog on the importance of organization for electoral success, we continue this week with more from Professor Rebecca Gordon, focusing on the three skills needed to make a connection when canvassing in the context of Union worker outreach during the 2018 Midterms in Nevada.

Organizing requires skillful conversations that help people to consider carefully what they do want and that show them how they can work with other people to get it. Organizing is not so much a practice of convincing people to act against their own interests and desires as it is one of motivating people to identify those interests and desires – and to go for them.

Of course, it’s not that simple. People’s interests and desires often conflict with each other, and with those of other people. People can, for example, want both cheap gas and to forestall climate change. Furthermore, most organizing campaigns begin from the assumption that the organizers know what policies will best meet those interests and desires. Even with the best of intentions, and the most transparent practice, there’s always an element of coercion (social or moral, if not physical) involved.

Three crucial organizing skills:

  1. Getting in the door
  2. Asking an agitational question
  3. Telling a personal story

All three skills help canvassers make a genuine (if brief) connection with the stranger who opens the door when they knock. And all of them involve convincing people to do things they don’t want to.

Getting in the door means being able to claim a voter’s attention, even after the voter has said she’s busy, or not interested, or even disgusted by all the negative ads she’s seen on TV. Canvassers demonstrated approaches that worked for them: “I say, I can see you’re really busy, and I wouldn’t interrupt you, except that this is really important for our community. I’m a hotel housekeeper from Northern California spending two months away from my family, living in a hotel, to have a chance to talk with people like you.”

Asking an agitational question has the purpose of raising the emotional stakes of the conversation for the voters. This means paying attention to clues about their actual situation. It also means really listening to the answer to that question, and connecting that voter’s real concerns to the campaign. “Is the cost of living affecting your family?” a canvasser might ask in a less-affluent area. “Are you worried about how crowded your children’s schools are?” could be the question that gets the attention of a voter with a yard full of toys. Many Spanish-speakers responded vigorously to questions about how they feel about President Trump. Canvassers role play these conversations and discuss how to improve them.

Professor Rebecca Gordon

Telling a personal story invites the voter to see the canvasser as a human being and to understand why their vote matters. Several mornings we listened with tears as one a canvasser told a true story from their own life. “When I was little my family was homeless,” one woman’s story began, “and I don’t want any other child to have to go through what I did.” Her generosity in exposing her life to her fellow campaigners – and to strangers on the doors – inspired us all to keep at it.

But it’s not enough to see the skills demonstrated. Every day the canvassers practice them in small groups, critiquing themselves and each other. The leads accompany them on the doors and debrief them on each conversation. This kind of training takes honesty and guts. There’s nothing nice about it.

But these are exactly the skills that union members will carry back to the job with them, ready to deploy when they are asking for something much more difficult than a vote. Most people don’t risk much when they go to the polls. It’s a different matter when the organizer is asking someone to risk her job by signing a union card.

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