On August 26, David Fleischer was in St. Louis, knocking on doors. Two weeks after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, put racism on stark display and left one dead and more than 30 wounded, Fleischer was canvassing with the Organization for Black Struggle, showing up unannounced on front steps and asking strangers to spend a few minutes talking about racial prejudice and a ballot measure on minimum wage.
“My canvas partner and I were in a predominately African-American neighborhood that’s really struggling economically,” Fleischer says, but at one home, Kyle, a white, male voter in his 20s, answered the door.
“We ask at the beginning, ‘What’s your sense of how much prejudice is experienced by African-American people on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is all the damn time?” Fleischer says. “He picked 6.”
So Fleischer, who’s based in California and works as director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership Lab, told Kyle a story of how he sees prejudice in the world. Then he asked if Kyle had experienced anything like that.
“He explained his wife is from Uganda and she’s black, and he told us a story when they were at the airport recently going through security to fly overseas.” While the TSA officers whisked Kyle through the screening, their friendliness dissolved when his wife stepped up, and they insisted on searching her bag.
“The important part is not that something grievous has happened. It’s that these small indignities and bad assumptions are experienced in a much more regular way,” Fleischer says. That 6 suddenly seemed woefully inadequate.
Kyle signed the petition in support of raising minimum wage, but to Fleischer that’s hardly the point. “We’re not really talking about his opinion on racism in the world; he’s reflecting on his lived experiences. Here’s this good guy with good intentions, and now he’s going to be an even better guy.”
The technique Fleischer used is called deep canvassing, and it’s currently being employed from St. Louis to Northern Virginia to discuss racism and discrimination. As its name suggests, deep canvassing is far more in-depth than its traditional brethren. While a regular canvas lasts around two minutes and is “about as much fun as a telemarketing call,” according to Fleischer, a deep canvas is designed to be an open conversation that can stretch 10 to 20 minutes and focuses on eliciting meaningful stories from the person who’s answered the door.
“Even voters with very cruel opinions, their real lived experience is not as cruel as those opinions would suggest,” Fleischer says.
Fleischer is generally credited as the father of deep canvassing. He saw the need for a new political strategy after the passage of Prop 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California.
“All the polls here showed we’d win in a landslide, so the LGBT community was shocked when we lost,” Fleischer remembers.
Clearly, there was a disconnect, so the longtime organizer decided to do something radical: go out and talk to the people who’d voted against him. What emerged was the realization that traditional political canvassing was fundamentally flawed. Telling people what to believe did nothing to change their minds.
What did seem to work was sharing personal stories, creating real rapport and asking voters to reflect on their own lived experiences. “The reason we’ve had results that last is that people remember best the words that come out of their own mouth,” Fleischer says.
“If you instead ask people about their real lived experience around some aspect of race … even people who really disagree with us are willing to engage. Race matters to them, the Trump voters.”
In 2016, researchers from UC Berkeley and Stanford verified what Fleischer and co. already believed: that deep canvassing worked. In an article published in Science, they showed that with a 10-minute conversation, canvassers “virtually erased” prejudices towards transgender people in one out of every 10 respondents. Even more compelling, three months later, the new viewpoint had stuck.
Now, groups like the Organization for Black Struggle, Jewish Community Action and the Northern Virginia chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice are using deep canvassing to talk to their local communities about racial prejudice.
Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jewish Community Action learned about deep canvassing five years ago when same-sex marriage was on the ballot in Minnesota. Recently the group returned to the technique to discuss racism.
“We did our first public canvas in August, and the idea is really to go out and have conversations around race and racial prejudice,” says Rachel English, an organizer for Jewish Community Action. “A lot of times when we go to doors and start talking about racism, folks say, ‘Well, I’m not racist.’ So what we’re really trying to talk about is unconscious bias and how we all have unconscious biases.
“What we try to do is tell stories about times that we’ve erred,” she adds. By focusing on personal experiences and sharing stories, “we’re able to talk with white folks and help them think through what everyday white supremacy might mean without saying things that might turn folks off.”
[W]ith a 10-minute conversation, canvassers “virtually erased” prejudices towards transgender people in one out of every 10 respondents. Three months later, the new viewpoint had stuck.
In St. Louis, the Organization for Black Struggle has focused on black political empowerment for the last 27 years. Earlier this year, they held a deep canvassing training and built a team to go out into neighborhoods and start conversations.
“To me, deep canvassing is really about building relationships and getting community stories,” says Tempestt Tuggle, field organizer for OBS. “What deep canvassing really touches on is we’re all people and we’re all people who go through the same things.”
Recently, OBS has been using the technique to discuss discrimination against people of color and how it’s tied to minimum wage. In May, the city of St. Louis boosted its minimum wage to $10 per hour. But the Republican-controlled legislature and governor stepped in with a bill that blocked the city from enforcing the raise, returning many workers to the state-mandated $7.70 per hour.
Using deep canvassing, Tuggle says OBS can discuss “how discrimination happens through laws” and the difficulties of working a minimum wage job. “You watch people go from a 1 to be like, ‘I think I’m a 10 now.’ That’s the cool part, to get people really thinking about these issues because it impacts us in all kinds of ways.”
We often talk about race and racism as a hard conversation to have in this country, but Fleischer disagrees. “It’s an impossible conversation if we stay in the realm of opinion. … If you instead ask people about their real lived experience around some aspect of race … even people who really disagree with us are willing to engage. Race matters to them, the Trump voters.”
Fleischer says we’re still at the beginning of figuring out what needs to be in that conversation, and that deep canvassing won’t work for every individual. “I don’t really think that deep canvassing is necessarily a great way to go with a skinhead—someone who is out in the street trying to hurt people of color,” he says. But, he adds, most American voters don’t support neo-Nazis. “Why don’t we talk to the 99.9 percent who are either with us or against us, but who are not cruel and sadistic to the point of violence.
“We’ve got 15 months before the next election,” he adds. “We all have a responsibility at this precarious political moment to try to engage.”