Canvassing: A Microcosm

I nearly let the entire month of August lapse without a post.  Thanks, then, to the little white fluffy dog who bit my ankle on Wednesday and forced me to stay home from work yesterday and today.  It seems as if I’ve been in constant motion since we moved, and I haven’t spared a single moment to write more than emails.

For the past four weeks, I’ve spent most evenings knocking on people’s doors.  I am a canvasser for an environmental protection nonprofit.  After considering child care or retail, I ended up at a mission driven organization, which is where I belong.

Few people wake up in the morning expecting to get involved with a campaign to save the environment.  Naturally, some folks insist that they’re too busy to talk or that they’re not interested.  A few shut the door in my face.

The surprising thing is not that there are grouchy–even nasty–people in the world.  It is that so many people are open to hearing what my organization is doing and want to get involved.

There was the wrinkled lady in a big Victorian house.  I told her that we are fighting for a ban on hydrofracking and asked her for a donation.  She immediately responded, “Well, I guess I better.  This is very important.  I’ve been wanting to do something about this.”  Although her memory was failing her–she expended a lot of energy finding her checkbook, attempting to recall how to write a check, deciding what the date was, and remembering how much money she said she’d donate just a few minutes earlier–there was no doubt in her mind that the gas companies shouldn’t be permitted to pollute her state.

There was the Italian couple who didn’t know much English after 45 years in the U.S. Our conversation was a reminder of how much can be communicated with a few words, how much is said through tone and body language, with a smile and a twinkle in the eye.

My normal explanation of the issue, about water levels, erosion damage, and shoreline restoration boiled down to “Lake.  River.  Help.”  The husband furrowed his eyebrows and studied the information on my clipboard.  I asked for a donation.  He contemplated the number and repeated it.  Then he looked at his wife and said, “Get-uh the check-uh book-uh.”

While the husband laboriously printed tidy little letters on the check, I explained that my family was from Sicily and that I had visited Italy this year.  They told me about where they came from on the mainland.  I’m not sure what language we spoke.  Italians blend English and Italian with a zeal that is representative of their Mediterranean approach to life.

At last he handed me the check.  “Grazie mille!” I said, relishing the opportunity to say those two words.  “Arrivederci!”

And they responded with my favorite phrase: “Ciao!  Prego!”

Not everyone can help with a donation, but many write letters to the governor and other officials.  Neighbors leave their letters on their porch, and I come back to pick them up at the end of the night.

Earlier this week, I met four guys at a Christian group home.  Two of the guys had disabilities, and the other two were mentors/caregivers.  As I gave my spiel, the men with disabilities were very enthusiastic.  “Oh wow!  I LOVE the lake and the river.  This is very important,” one exclaimed.  As an afterthought, he added, “I like your pink bookbag.”

Although the caregivers/mentors were busy, I stressed the value of letters.  As I left, one mentor pulled computer paper out of a closet, and I knew that he would help the men write the letters.

I came back twenty minutes later, frustrated with the shadows cloaking the house numbers.  Frustrated that I hadn’t met my fundraising goal for the night.  Then I spotted the letters waiting for me on a porch chair, signed in scratchy, sloppy handwriting by the two men with disabilities.

The men might not make it out to vote in November.  They might not be able to read a newspaper or follow the presidential race.  But when someone knocked on their door and talked to them about an issue they care about, they were eager and able to get involved with the democratic process by writing to their governor.  They are what community organizing is all about.

Some people won’t get involved at all, but they still lift my spirits.  They are the ones who don’t agree with the issue I discuss, but who praise me for going door to door and thank me for doing the work that I do.  Despite the gridlocked disgrace that is Congress, most Americans still value differing viewpoints and debate.  They respect people who are trying to effect change, because we all want a better country.

And the nasty, grouchy ones?  We call them “nonsupporters,” and I try to forget them as soon as I walk away from the door.   Just because someone is a nonsupporter one year, doesn’t mean he or she won’t get involved next year, though, so I always say, “Thanks, have a nice day.”

On Wednesday, one of the first people I spoke to was a nonsupporter in a very affluent neighborhood.  Let’s just say that she directly criticized me and my abilities (even though in reality she simply wasn’t interested in the issue), and she set a bad example for her young children about how to interact with fellow human beings.

I felt dejected as I walked down her driveway, but I determined that she wouldn’t ruin my night.  The next neighbor I spoke to gave me a generous donation and agreed to write letters.  I was on a roll.  I raised more money in two hours than I had on any other full day of work.

Then I came to the house with the little white fluffy dog.

I had petted over half a dozen friendly dogs that day.  I’d even spent over five minutes trying to catch a “teenaged” white fluffball named Woody, who belonged to a supporter and was as energetic and disobedient as any human adolescent.

So when this new little dog barked at me, I wasn’t intimidated.  He was wagging his tail, after all.  I walked halfway up the driveway and let him sniff my hand.  Thinking we were friends, I took a step forward, entering his radio collar territory.

In a split second, he lunged for my ankle.  I frantically jumped back.  He snarled and barked, but thankfully his collar shocked him so he retreated.  I looked down at my foot.  If I was the type of person to faint at the sight of blood, I would have passed out right there on the asphalt.

I heard neighbors outside two houses down, so I limped over and asked them for help.  The three kids in the driveway thought I was going to die, but the adults stayed calm.  They helped me clean up, talk to the dog’s owner, and drove me to a nearby grocery store where I waited for my coworkers to pick me up at the end of the night.  (I will join the select club of canvassers who bear battle scars from this job–my dog bite incident was the exception, not the rule.)

My workday started out with a nonsupporter who at one time would have made me cry.  In the middle, people overwhelmed me with their generosity.  And when my workday came to a violent and sudden end, I was helped by kind strangers.

Canvassing is a microcosm.

Question of the day: When was a time that you have been touched by the generosity or kindness of strangers?

*UPDATE: I was shocked to find out this post was honored with Freshly Pressed.  My encounter with the little white fluffy dog paid off in very unexpected ways.  Thanks for checking out my fledgling blog.  Post a comment, sign up for email subscriptions and stick around!*

Coming soon: PICTURES!  I promise.