On a brisk day in March before the pandemic, MariaElena Fournier knocked on the door of a trailer home in rural Michigan. Fournier heard rustling inside, but no one came to the door. Looking down at their canvassing list, Fournier noted that the woman listed as the resident was over 80 years old; they decided to wait, in case it took awhile for her to answer. When the woman finally got to the door, she was so surprised that Fournier had waited that she agreed to sit down with them and talk on her porch.
That part was important for Fournier. As part of their work with Michigan United, a community organizing collective in the state, Fournier spent the spring of 2019 engaging in a novel form of canvassing—a sort of community engagement called “deep canvassing.” At its heart, deep canvassing is that idea that long, personal conversations can have enormous political power.
Back on the porch, Fournier introduced themselves as a student studying public health at the University of Michigan. The woman told Fournier her name was Inga; she was a German immigrant, the child of parents who had left Nazi Germany. Fournier got to their question: How would Inga rate her support of universal health care on a scale of 1 to 10?
“She was not very supportive,” Fournier said, laughing. “She was at a 2 out of 10.” Inga went even lower on the scale when Fournier got to their next question: What if that universal health care included immigrants and undocumented people?
Canvassing normally involves making direct contact community members, which normally looks like a pitch for a candidate of political cause. It’s often based on driving turnout, rather than changing minds. For some canvassers, Inga’s response might have been the end of the conversation since she seemed unlikely to change her mind, but Fournier followed up with questions. They worked to try to understand Inga’s perspective; the lived experience she brought to her political thinking. As they spoke, Inga began to share about her life. She opened up about how she saw her husband, a veteran, languish for years with Alzheimers without the health care he needed—the health care he was owed. At one point, Inga was deciding whether to spend money on medicine or food.
Fournier paid rapt attention, and then told Inga how much her story reminded them of their own. Fournier, who grew up in Puerto Rico, has German immigrant mother. Fournier’s father was also a veteran, and they also lost him to Alzheimers after a tough battle against both medical and financial adversity.
Inga and Fournier spoke for over an hour. At the end, Fournier asked her again to rank her support for universal health care on a scale from 1 to 10. Inga was still low on the scale. “But she said we need a more equitable system; that people deserve better,” Fournier said. “Even if she didn’t like the word ‘universal health care,’ she supported more equity.”
How do minds change? It rarely happens in the course of one conversation. But even if a talk doesn’t change someone’s mind right away, it can plant a seed. Months can go by and a person can turn new ideas over in their head. As dogmatic as the people of this country have become, feelings and beliefs can change. There’s data to show that deep canvassing is effective toward that sort of change.
People’s Action, a multiracial, working class organizing coalition, performed an experiment with deep canvassing in the spring of 2019. Using data collected by canvassers (the same sort of “scale of 1 to 10” questions Fournier asked at the beginning and end of their conversation with Inga) researchers at Yale and and the University of California Berkeley discovered that the method was successful—shockingly successful. Months later, when people reached by canvassers were contacted again, they were in general more supportive of the pitch they had heard. Deep canvassing was an “estimated 102 times more effective per person than the average Presidential persuasion program,” the researchers noted in their report.
The changes are significant. Among people reached by People’s Action’s deep canvassing campaign experiment in rural towns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, Trump’s margin of support decreased by over 3%—larger than Biden’s margin of victory in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Clearly, something about deep canvassing is proving effective. According to organizers who have had these long conversations, the key is listening. “We talk to voters about their own experiences; about their own stakes in their lives,” Fournier said. “You let them know they’re being heard instead of just talking about the issue at hand.”
As Johanna Kichton of People’s Action explains, one of the most persuasive aspects of deep canvassing is simply getting people to talk with someone they wouldn’t normally talk to. She says the method has roots in the LGBTQ+ liberation movement, when queer people would knock on doors and have conversations, answering people’s questions about LGBTQ+ issues. It is of course an enormous act of emotional labor to have those sorts of conversations—and one not everyone can, or should, feel safe doing. Fournier says that as Latinx person, they felt nervous about their own safety the first time they went to knock on doors. And Black canvassers—including a lawmaker in Oregon—have had police called on them simply for knocking on doors. But for people who have the capacity to undertake the labor, the research has found that one of the most potent ways of combating bigotry is to have a person get to know the people they’ve formed prejudices against.
Fournier says that, in their experience, combatting people’s bigotry in conversations can go back to the central lesson of deep canvassing: asking questions. One time while working with another canvasser, they spoke to a white woman who seemed somewhat open to universal health care, but whose support cratered when they asked her if she supported universal health care for immigrants. The woman explained that it scared her when she heard people speaking languages other than English; she hated not knowing what sort of things people were saying about her when they spoke in their own language.
“We asked, ‘How do you know people are saying negative things about you when they speak in their own language?’” Fournier said. “And suddenly she just got silent and stared at the ground.”
A few moments passed. Then the woman said, introspectively, “I’m not a racist.”
As the conversation went on, Fournier says the woman seemed to be experiencing a genuine moment of shifting perspective. She seemed less hostile to immigrants.
Often, talk about healing the United States’ “divisions” politely ignores the fact that many of this country’s divisions come from white supremacy; the legacies of slavery and the genocide of Native people; misogny; homophobia and transphobia; and deep set classism. However, even in these most caustic divides, organizers like Fournier see hope for work like deep canvassing.
“It really is just so important for us to talk to our neighbors,” Fournier said.