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This is part of a 2-part series. Be sure to tune into Episode 036, as well.


In today’s episode, we’re going to tackle a topic we’ve never really discussed on the podcast before –at least directly– which is a bit surprising: politics. If even hearing the word made you tense up or feel flashbacks, you aren’t alone. Most of us have been doing everything we can to get a mental break for the past couple of months.

And while the 2020 election is now months behind us, it is never too early to start thinking about 2022 or even 2024. If we want to continue seeing progressive change in US politics I’d argue that we not only need to be thinking about it, we need to be taking action right now. But what should we be doing? How can we make the biggest impact in the months and years ahead? I want to introduce you to the idea of Deep Canvassing, and how we can take this traditional method of campaigning and utilize it to impact the masses.

I’ve split this topic into two episodes. This first episode is going to cover the basics of Deep Canvassing and I’ll share some examples of how it’s played out in my life, and in part two we’ll go over an actionable plan for how you can start using deep canvassing to have conversations with people who disagree with you and perhaps help them understand progressive viewpoints on a wide range of topics. You ready?

Change Your Mind

A lot of people don’t know that I’m a recovering Republican. But I am, I used to vote republican. By the time I was in my mid-20s I was sort of voting for an array of candidates but my thinking was far from progressive. Thinking back to my opinions in my early and mid-twenties is actually a really big source of shame for me — but as they say “if you aren’t embarrassed by your past, you aren’t growing.”

I am proof that people can change their way of thinking…and even the way they vote. And the experience of being able to change my own damn mind has helped inform me on how to help others change theirs, too.

In 2016 I was pretty devastated when I found out my Dad voted for Donald Trump. I went several months without speaking to him, but when we did finally speak the first thing I asked him was “Please explain to me why you felt compelled to vote for Trump”. And his answer told me a story. It told me a story about the things he was worried about and the ways he felt vulnerable and the ways in which the media, disinformation, and other people in his life were shaping his opinions.

Over the past 5 years, my Dad and I have had many conversations. We are more aligned now than we ever have been. In fact, I just had a long phone call with him last Saturday night and toward the end of our call he said “Oh, I just finished Caste! Wow was that ever a terrific book she did an incredible job of compiling that information and presenting it.” This is a man who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but who will now spend his Thursdays trying to inform his friends about racism, climate change, and wealth inequality while they play golf.

This isn’t about me wanting to take credit for his transformation. He did that himself. And this is my entire point of this podcast episode. In order to get more people to think progressively, we cannot change their minds. We have to empower them with the information and tools they need to change their mind themselves.

But, not everyone will be as easy to persuade as my dad was. He is, after all, a retiree with a master’s degree in biology. He has the time and ability to educate himself. We probably can’t convince every white person to read Caste and gain a deeper understanding of racial injustice. While my Dad voted for Trump, his ideology has always been pretty progressive — so what about those eggs that seem a lot harder to crack?

We need to approach this from the angle of Deep Canvassing — but with a modern twist. And in this two-part episode, I’m going to explain exactly what that means and how to put it into action.

Modern Deep Canvassing

If you have ever volunteered on a campaign you have heard of canvassing. It’s the act of going into neighborhoods, knocking on doors, dropping off brochures or free yard signs — maybe a bumper sticker — to get people to vote for your candidate. Maybe you even help someone register or find their polling place.

Deep canvassing takes this a step further. Deep canvassing is when you need to get someone to change their mind on a social issue, such as LGBTQ+ rights or climate change. And research shows us that deep canvassing is most impactful when there is a two-way conversation between people where they are able to share their own life experiences and how it relates to the issue.

For example, if you knock on the door of a 70-year-old man who is against gay people being able to legally marry, you might be tempted to call him homophobic and leave it at that. While he may, indeed, be homophobic, it’s also possible that he has never had a reason to really care or understand the issue — if you stop here, you have not changed his vote on the issue, and most importantly….this homophobic person still exists in the world.

A better approach is getting to the root of the issue and telling a story. Ask if he has ever felt discriminated against. He might say, “Yes, when I was young and trying to find work I often felt discriminated against because I didn’t have a high school degree” You now know how discrimination has impacted his life and can respond with a story about how discrimination has impacted your life— or, how it is impacting a gay person you care about.

Deep canvassing is about going to people’s doors or giving them a phone call and having these two-way conversations that are shown to help shift people’s thinking on certain topics. What I want to talk about today, is how we can modernize this approach to campaigning in order to further progressive agendas for future elections.

I don’t want to dwell on right-wing strategies, but I do want to plant this seed before we continue on. Think about the ways right-wing politics utilized methods similar to deep canvassing to spread disinformation and also discrimination leading up to both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

They largely related to people with a two-way conversation — “Oh, you’re struggling financially and can’t find work? Me, too. You know who we should blame? Immigrants. There are too many immigrants in this country and they are taking resources that belong to us.” While we know that this is flawed thinking because there are plenty of resources to go around and our economy needs immigrants in order to function — their approach worked and it worked really well.

This was largely because they scaled this method up using social media. They weren’t just going door to door to have the conversations one-on-one. They were having these conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and private forums allowing them to reach the masses, persuade their way of thinking and change their vote.

My goal in this episode is to help us recognize the opportunity before us. So many of us are nervous about speaking out about politics. We’ve been conditioned to think it’s inappropriate. A common line is that it’s “not ladylike”. I want to challenge you to think about who benefits when we do not discuss politics. Because it is not us, it is not the marginalized and oppressed people that benefit from political silencing.

You might also be hesitant to be politically outspoken because you struggle with the anxiety it creates or the time commitment it requires. I think my suggestions today will also help address these concerns.

My Experience with Deep Canvassing

To help us understand what this modern deep canvassing would look like, I want to tell you the story of how I became an abolitionist. Racial justice is probably one of the areas where my conservative opinions were most entrenched up until a decade ago. But, perhaps a bit surprisingly, it was actually the topic of racial justice that led me further into the progressive movement. So, to reiterate that again — the topic I was most clinging to regarding conservative values, ended up being what led me toward more open and progressive thinking on all topics.

What changed my thinking was the Ferguson Uprising that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The next few minutes will have mentions of violence against Black people.

On August 9, 2014, Mike Brown, a Black teenager, was shot and killed by police in St. Louis, Missouri.

Over the next two years, I watched as the Ferguson Uprising unfolded through a friend’s Facebook posts. Her name is Elle Dowd and she is the person I credit with deep canvassing me on the issue of police brutality and abolition, along with several other social issues.

I watched as she marched in the streets. As she was tear-gassed and arrested multiple times. As she argued online with other white, moderate midwesterners trying to help them understand what was happening in Missouri. What she was seeing with her own eyes. How it conflicted with what was being portrayed in the media.

But it wasn’t, actually, these very visceral and real images or accounts that she was sharing that actually got me to shift. It was in the months and years that followed as she took me on a daily journey into the Black experience. Elle, I should point out, is a white midwestern woman, but she had this way of dropping a breadcrumb every day that made me relate to the experience of Black people in America…and over the course of several years got me to a point where I was more open to the fact that police brutality is real, and that abolition is necessary.

Elle’s approach to me could have been, “You don’t think police brutality is real. You’re a racist.” but that wasn’t her approach. And although this was several years ago now, some of those breadcrumbs that she dropped for me are still vivid in my memory:

I remember when she shared the story of Emmett Till. A 14-year old black boy who was violently lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly looking at a white woman in a grocery store.

I remember when she told the story of Black Wall Street, which was located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was the wealthiest Black community in the United States when it was leveled by white mops in 1921. More than 40 city blocks were leveled, 10,000 Black people were injured and left homeless, at least 300 Black people were killed, and in a report commissioned by the State of Oklahoma in 2001, they stated that Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the first city in America to be bombed from the air — when white men dropped homemade kerosene bombs out of airplanes onto the Black businesses and homes of Tulsa.

I also remember Elle sharing what took place on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when state troopers attacked unarmed marchers as they passed over the county line marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demonstrate their desire to vote.

Although none of these things are necessarily about defunding or abolishing the police or even supporting movements like Black Lives Matter, Elle was providing me with historical context — and the information and tools I needed to change my own mind. She was giving me a historical perspective that I could understand and relate to when I saw violence or discrimination against Black people in the news. And, over time, this helped me develop an understanding of the long history of racial violence in the US and what had led up to the moment and movement we were currently living in.

They were little stories and little breadcrumbs over time. Things that made small shifts in my thinking day-to-day, but added up to a transformation over time.

This is what we need more of if we want to see US politics reformed in a progressive vision. This is the long-form approach to combatting disinformation. It is much harder to misinform and mislead an informed population.

So much of progressive politics are big ideas that can be really hard for some people to grasp or relate to. Why should we provide universal healthcare? Why should college be affordable or free? Why do we need to prioritize climate change? Why is reproductive healthcare important? It is really hard to sit down and change someone’s mind on any of these topics with one conversation. What we need to start doing is dropping those breadcrumbs. Shifting people’s opinions an inch at a time, because eventually, it turns into a revolution.

And the best part of this. The VERY best news here is this. We don’t have to go out and knock on doors. We don’t have to expend time and resources having these conversations one-on-one. The same tactics that were used against us to sow division and spread disinformation and hate can be used to create an enlightened, informed, and progressive majority in America.

Use the resources you have — whether it’s exchanging handwritten letters or emails with one family member, or a friend group of 4-5 people. Or, posting to your personal Facebook page or Instagram Story. You do not need a huge following to make a difference. If each one of us can change 2 or 3 votes in the coming years we will have secured a progressive majority for the future. That’s all it would take.

I hope that part one of this two-part episode has got you thinking about the ways your views have changed over the years. What things did you learn or experience that allowed you to shift your perspective? Who are the people who have given you that labor and that time and have left you those breadcrumbs so that you could do the work and change your own mind?

Are you ready to do the same for others? If you are feeling revved up and ready to learn more about modern deep canvassing go ahead and press play on Episode 036, which is also live now. I’ll see you over there.

Important Links:

This is part of a 2-part series. Be sure to tune into Episode 036, as well.

NPR cult deprogramming

Unite & Build Facebook Group

Baptized in Teargas by Elle Dowd

Plan Podcast Episode 035: Changing Minds with Deep Canvassing (Part 1)

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