Finding each other through deep canvassing | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Finding each other through deep canvassing

Eastern Kentucky Organizer Jacob Mack-Boll has been leading a learning circle about deep canvassing. Below are his reflections from the first two months of facilitating and participating in the learning circle.

Over the past two months, a small collection of KFTC members, staff, and allies have been probing the questions “what is deep canvassing?” “how do we design field canvassing operations that are responsive to this moment?” and “what can we learn from the powerful work being done by other organizers around the country to engage people meaningfully where they are?” Partially prompted by a desire to work with other organizations in Kentucky to build support for federal THRIVE agenda and Green New Deal policies, it also resonated with other pieces of our work – folks are talking in all corners of KFTC about wanting to do more door knocking. 

We’ve been looking to learn ways that people are designing and using field approaches that are non transactional, responding to a trend in political canvassing that has prioritized short conversations, talking at voters rather than listening to learn what voters are thinking, ignoring people that might not already be convinced, and aimed mostly at getting something (usually a vote or a signature). Instead, these ideas of “deep canvassing” and similar approaches emphasize relationships, listening, and persuasion with the goal of organizing people rather than just mobilizing them. 

We didn’t want to focus exclusively on this one “deep canvass” methodology, but acknowledged that it is an approach receiving a lot of attention. This gave us an opportunity to spend time learning from a few groups taking different approaches to their field work, and look for the places they were finding the most success and excitement. We had presentations from groups West Virginia Can’t Wait, People’s Action, Down Home North Carolina, and SONG Power. 

Adam Kruggel shared one window into how and why People’s Action started deep canvassing by naming how, “there was this real deep reckoning (after the 2016 election) that we as a as progressives had failed, really, in terms of really connecting deeply, that we had to do a lot of soul searching, like we had become disconnected with people that we love and people who should be with us who are suffering, who are not benefited by the status quo. And that we should be organizing, but because of our own hubris, or our own arrogance, and our inability to listen, but also, also, because of the way the right has really weaponized race, they have been dominating people’s hearts and minds for decades, and that we need to get back in. So we spent the first year listening, asking, what are you most concerned about? What’s your vision? And then, who’s responsible? Really trying to understand people’s judgment. We saw this core conflict, like really viscerally.” 

That conflict was often primarily about who they believed was responsible for the problems in their lives and community: the wealthy and powerful, or their neighbors? What we’ve heard, from multiple fronts, has been that in our cities, in our rural places, and in the South, we’re fighting in a media landscape that has been captured by people who promote fear and propose solutions that inevitably escalate poverty, division, cynicism and mistrust.

This resonates with what KFTC has been hearing and learning from others over the past few years. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson inviting us at our Annual Meeting a few years ago to not cede rural places or white people or poor folks to be organized by the right-wing. Or what the research about Race-Class Narrative has taught us about intentionally messaging our fights so that they actively combat and reveal racist dog-whistle politics and tropes that the right-wing and the wealthy rely on to keep the rest of us from finding each other. 

As we heard in this learning group from Kruggel, maybe one problem is that, “We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” 

So deep canvassing asks us to listen, to understand, and lean in. Kruggel offered that one way to think of deep canvassing is the opportunity to do “light agitation” with someone you already know, where there’s a contradiction you want to excavate or hold up a mirror for someone to process their cognitive dissonance. First we have to listen and hear someone, then we can share from our own experience, and only then are we able to move towards persuasion.

You could say a deep canvass conversation is really just a “one-on-one” organizing conversation. Katey Lauer shared with us about how WV Can’t Wait used every opportunity they could to have one on ones with people. She wrote about it in a piece called “How to Scale,” saying, “Importantly, the goal of these one-on-one meetings was never to pitch how our gubernatorial candidate, or any other WV Can’t Wait candidate, would solve all our problems, as establishment candidates profess to do. The goal was to find out what moved the people we were meeting with, where we were aligned, and what role they could play. In short, one-on-ones were how we began a relationship to invite someone into the work.”

When we think of it that way, it’s not anything different than one we already preach. But what is clear is that it requires intentionality, a clear strategy, rigorous and adequate training, support, and a willingness to be vulnerable. What are some of the other pieces that define it? 

Why do it? 

  • It’s more effective at persuading than other communications and canvass approaches.
  • The persuasion achieved through deep canvassing lasts.
  • People are conflicted. We have the opportunity to expose and process contradictions in peoples lives. 
  • Facts don’t persuade (at least not by themselves; at least not until there’s a groundwork of trust) 
  • Empathy has the power to shape our consciousness and worldview.
  • Ultimately, this is a great way for people to learn the art of organizing: these are organizing conversations. 

What makes it work? Some assumptions and key elements of deep canvassing we’re gleaning as we go: 

  • At its core, basically taking some of the best parts of what we do in organizing and compressing them into a 12 to 15 minute canvass context. Basic things we already believe. 
  • Deep canvassing is the process of organizing, of reminding each of us that we belong to each other.
  • We have to talk explicitly about race. We can have intentional race forward conversations that help us inoculate against all of the horrible ways that we’ve been pitted against each other. We have found the enemy, and it is not one another.
  • The way we get people to a place of shared analysis is through story, and through deep listening. 
  • People have a chance to hold up their own beliefs and assumptions, without judgement, and share them. And then, maybe, they get to put themselves in someone else’s shoes - and maybe they let their perspective change, even a little.
  • In the experience of researchers, deep canvassing persuasion conversations are effective whether or not the canvasser is from the community they were volunteering/ working in.
  • These are emotionally intense conversations. Debriefing together is crucial. 
  • Training. We have to be rigorous, we have to get specific, we have to get personal.

 Some tips and tricks for having these conversations: 

  • You have to be willing to listen to someone you disagree with. 
  • You have to be willing to share your own story, vulnerably. 
  • You have to be willing to not argue (this will only reinforce existing frames). 
  • Cone of curiosity: when we’re listening to someone, remind yourself to keep asking questions, looking for a hint of a story. What we’re looking for is why does someone believe what they do? Not trying to persuade of anything - trying to understand. 
  • Story of harm: describe a time when ____ caused harm to you or someone you know? How did it feel when that happened? Reflecting on it, why did it feel that way? 
  • Story of hope: I believe it doesn’t have to be this way. How would doing ___ keep the person in your story safe, and how would that make you feel?