By Jamie Gardner
This spring, the East Bay DSA, working with the California Nurses Association, mobilized almost 200 volunteers for door-to-door canvassing to educate voters about the benefits of single-payer health care. The response was so positive that the local plans to use canvassing for a variety of issues.—Ed.
Door-to-door canvassing can be very effective in reaching folks who wouldn’t otherwise encounter our message. We’ve been experimenting with both big city-wide canvassing events and smaller, neighborhood-focused groups. By election season, we hope to have trained 1,000 local leftists to canvass—giving us a powerful tool to back socialists in local elections.
Step 1: Write a rap
Our goal is to find folks who care about our cause but don’t know how to get involved. We live in an alienating and alienated society, so chatting with strangers about important political issues does not come easily to most of us. We’re not asking for money or trying to get signatures. This frees us to have meaningful conversations with people who are interested in talking to us.
Rather than ramp up the awkwardness with a memorized script, we listen more than we talk. The rap—a flexible set of pointers and pertinent facts—is designed to guide the conversation from information to action. First, we ask what they know; we draw out the relevance of the issue to their lives and help them identify the need for action. Finally, we leave them with some way to take action. Canvassers should use their own words. The key is to get people talking, both so that they feel listened to and because they’ll remember what they say much more clearly than what you say.
Step 2: Do a test-run/training
Before you recruit your general membership and friends for a big event, gather a few of the organizers for a test canvass. Use the same timeline, petitions/handouts, and rap you’ve designed for the big event. Doing this will turn your organizers into experienced team captains and give you a chance to work out any kinks before scaling up.
Step 3: Choose your neighborhoods
Send teams to a few different neighborhoods. You may discover support in unexpected places, or you may find that some neighborhoods are especially dense with gated apartments that make door knocking impractical.
Step 4: Plan, plan, plan
Secure a home base for your event early and announce the upcoming canvass at DSA events and through your social media. Consider phone banking your members to get a firm head count. Make sure volunteers understand that canvassing involves walking around for several hours. Offer sit-down roles for comrades who need them at the place designated as home base and round up a few volunteers to provide child watch.
Consider how your volunteers will get from the meet-up spot to their turfs—walk, bike, or carpool? Provide clipboards for each team, with enough contact info sheets, leave-behind flyers, print copies of your rap, and FAQ for everyone.
Step 5: Do the canvass and debrief
Allow four to five hours for a Saturday afternoon canvass: this includes the opening rally, with background information. Break into teams to role-play canvassing with friendly and unfriendly neighbors. Then send volunteers out in pairs to spend an hour and a half to two hours before coming back to base for snacks and a debrief. Inviting the whole group out to socialize afterward helps build camaraderie after a long day’s work.
Step 6: Follow up
We use the NationBuilder software package to keep track of all the folks we contact, and we try to follow up by phone with new volunteers and promising contacts within a week or so. Use the feedback from your volunteers to refine your canvassing strategy, and keep on going.
Jamie Gardner is a lab tech, cat dad, and activist in Oakland, CA. He helped found a progressive umbrella group in his Deep South hometown and joined DSA after the 2016 election debacle.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.
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