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Canvassing for COPIRG: anthropology and political geography

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 08:14AM
Posted by Registered CommenterPolitical Mammal in My personal history

In the summer of 1985 I knocked on the doors of more than 70 houses a day, canvassing for COPIRG, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. I learned a lot about people and neighborhoods and political persuasion.

Our canvassing group was based out of Boulder and included my brother Ben, and a number of our other friends. The schedule suited me very well at the time -- we worked from two in the afternoon until ten, and then hung out late into the night. We then slept in the next day until noon.

All canvassers met at an office off the Pearl Street Mall at start of the day to get their assigned "turf" - a geographical area of several blocks for which you were responsible. You would then be provided a walk sheet that included information about any current members of COPIRG who lived in that area. These folks would have memberships you were trying to renew and were generally the easiest to approach.

A team of about five canvassers would ride together in a car to a meeting point, then fan out and visit alone each and every house in their respective turf, making a second pass if possible to pick up houses where no one had been home on the first pass. The object was to convey the organization's message of environmental or consumer protection, and try to get donations (in the form of memberships) to support that cause.

Each canvasser had a quota for the amount of money need to be raised in a week, and I believe that we were paid something like a third of what we brought in. It was not a high paying job, but you could affect how well you did. We each carried a clipboard with a signup sheet and some literature to distribute..

It was not an easy job. At the beginning, when I was being trained, I was very nervous knocking on the doors. And it was always hard to get going each day; you had to push yourself to go up to the next door. There was a specific rap that you were supposed to deliver. Ours was about how COPIRG had helped to pass, or was trying to pass, a lemon law to protect new car buyers. After a while, I started to develop my own style and confidence, and the basic rap became something to fall back upon. Then, the door-knocking became more like a chat with a neighbor leading naturally to the request for a check from the persuadable.

Neighborhoods that we worked were diverse in their look and feel and flavor. They varied in openness and sympathy for canvassers and in the density of friendly people. My brother and I compared observations day after day, building theories about people and locations from our experiences. We treated the job competitively, not so much with each other as within COPIRG, seeking always to return with as large a stack of checks as possible. Over time, we both got pretty good at it.

Success really had two main determinants, the nature of the turf you were assigned, and the skill of the canvasser. Ben and I learned, each in our own way, how to be persuasive by listening to people about their real concerns and talking to them knowledgeably about public policy and the role of the public interest group in shaping it. We treated the job as an honorable one.

The other determinant of success, indeed a larger factor, was the turf that you were assigned. There were some areas that were just fundamentally difficult to work in - sometimes for reasons of politics but also because of attitudes towards money.. It was just tough in some conservative areas, or wealthy Republican sections with carefully manicured lawns and intercom systems at their gates.

Ben and I developed a system to smooth out the ups and downs in our earnings, sometimes holding back a few checks on a good day to report a few more on the next. We still employ the verb "to copirg" to describe a practice like that in other contexts, meaning to hold back something strategically.

The other thing that I learned a lot about from canvassing was people. What they live like, to what degree they are politically informed, and just how widely that can vary. That summer I visited such contrasting places -- houses that were in disarray, with horrible messes and odors, other houses that were lovely and well-cared-for. I met racists and activists and bird collectors and the talkative and the rude and the morbidly obese. I contended with little yappy dogs and large scary ones. I noted numerous posters of gun barrels pointed out at me from front windows, warning intruders that the owners were armed. I engaged in heated discussions on doorsteps, or sympathetic conversations at the kitchen table. I was offered popsicles, or cookies, or beer, or a couch to rest on, or shelter in the rain. I learned how to fend off common objections and how to push someone gently to contribute. I surely had doors slammed on me, but, especially considering that I was intruding on people's lives, I was treated quite generously.

I suggest canvassing to anyone looking for a field seminar in anthropology and political geography.

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