Jessica Leigh Hester
On The Job is a series of conversations with the people who keep neighborhoods running.
Name: Dana Roze
City: San Francisco, CA
Even on drizzly, overcast afternoons, Dana Roze (“think of Dana Carvey drinking rosé”) stands on street corners in San Francisco’s Mission District, soliciting signatures on warped pieces of paper. He totes laminated fact sheets outlining various causes. His current project: gathering signatures opposing a plan to move the century-old San Francisco Flower Mart underground.
The bazaar—which has been in its current location since 1956—faces an uncertain future in the hands of Los Angeles-based developer Kilroy Realty. Curbed reported that firm plans to construct 1.5 million square feet of office space in the facility, relocate the market within the building, and allocate nearly 46,000 square feet of retail space—at a total cost of about $350 million. A local ballot measure endorsed by former mayor Art Agnos seeks to halt development by prohibiting the rezoning and height limit increase necessary to break ground. It already has more than 25,000 signatures, and according to one recent poll, 78 percent of San Franciscans oppose the development. (That’s good news for Roze, who is paid by the signature.) Bike helmet still strapped to his head after a short ride from his home on Valencia, Roze chatted with CityLab while waiting for locals to wander over.
What’s hard about this job?
You face rejection all day long. It’s hard to get people to stop. I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and even with the best causes, getting ten signatures an hour is good. People are busy. Some people hate signing these things or think they’re useless. And this only applies to San Francisco voters, so tourists can’t sign.
“This city can’t be entirely for programmers.”
Do you work a consistent schedule?
It’s cyclical. Sometimes I work up to 12 hours a day, five or six days a week. You can choose any location you want. This spot [at Valencia and 20th Street] is not my best location, but it’s close to home and the BART. It’s best to stay near a busy store. But even with a good group of people, the vast majority pass you by.
Roze works on busy street corners in San Francisco, like this intersection of Valencia and 20th Street. (CTG/SF/flickr)
What do you like about this gig?
I interact with people, talk about interesting issues, and learn a little bit about each subject. You’re outside in fresh air. And you’re your own boss, which is wonderful. There a bunch of good things about it.
Do you choose which causes you canvas for?
Yes, totally. This is a wonderful thing to work on. It’s a local issue. People love the flower market. From time to time, people come by and say, “I got my wedding flowers there.” Many people really have an attachment to it. And the other thing [that attracted me to this issue] is rampant development. We’re losing so many cultural institutions. I used to program computers—I have nothing against it. It’s an important thing to do. But as former mayor Agnos says, “This city can’t be entirely for programmers.”
Published 30/05/2015 | 02:30
Last Saturday was a beautiful moment in Irish history. The outpouring of sheer joy at Dublin Castle was mirrored in towns and villages across the country as lesbian and gay people celebrated their first day as full and equal citizens in our Republic. They were joined by their families, friends and supporters of equality in scenes that have grabbed the world's imagination.
The pictures also showed the real and not very secret weapon of the Yes campaign: thousands of people in every corner of the country determined to have their voices heard. Thousands of people who realised that simply voting was not going to be enough. They moved from being supporters of the campaign to being the campaign.
It was these people who went out every night for months and knocked on the doors of Ireland to say why marriage mattered to them and why we should vote Yes.
At the vast majority of the doors they were met by people impressed by their determination. There were less positive experiences, too. It is difficult for even the most seasoned campaigner when they are met with anger or condemnation. There were heroic individuals who walked up to doors to be told they were unnatural, disgraceful and worse, who then politely smiled, dusted themselves down and moved to the next door with the same drive: they were enough to humble the most hardened of us.
The heart of the Yes campaign was that the vote was about real people: members of our families, our friends, neighbours and work colleagues. Lesbian and gay people were not some group of people living on a rock looking at Ireland hoping to get in - we were here all along. We were and are the people who live on your street, who love our country, and cherish the communities we live in, just like everyone else. The army of canvassers on the streets night after night were the people who pulled back the curtains of Ireland and let others see that truth.
Their conversations changed hearts, minds and votes. They made space for people to ask questions - they explained why this mattered so much. They never lost their spirit or their good humour. And there were plenty behind the doors of Ireland that sustained them in their humour. From the woman who told a canvasser that, of course, she was voting Yes - "Sure it's not your fault you're the way you are" - to the man who was definitely voting Yes, but who tried to persuade the canvasser of the danger of marriage - "Are you sure you really want this?"
In Offaly a husband explained that while he would be voting Yes "herself inside is voting No". Herself inside emerged on cue and explained she'd changed her mind. "This is a small town, it took courage to canvass here and for that I'll vote Yes," she said.
In Westmeath a man followed the crew after being canvassed to say he had thought about the conversation and on reflection had changed his mind and would be voting Yes. On Dublin's southside an older man said he would be voting Yes, because "everyone has a right to have a go at making themselves happy or miserable".
There are other perks to the canvassing experience. These canvassers have never stood in so many hallways and porches in their lives. As one canvass leader said, at that very least the experience had given them wonderful ideas for redoing their house. Stories of offers of cake and biscuits, tea and other libations abounded. People in homes who never had the chance to tell anyone how their brother or aunt had left our country so that they could be who they were, and who cried as they thanked the people in their driveways for doing what they were doing. As they walked streets, lanes and boreens, knocking on door after door, they changed our country's perception of the people in our midst.
When the man stood up at the Cashel community centre meeting he made me think of an older version of my late father. As the debate began he had all his notes on why we should vote No with him. He was dignified and determined and the people in the room, from all points of view, talked and debated as he made his points. The following morning he emailed me to explain that he had listened to the arguments and the real stories of people and left as a Yes voter. That is where this was won. People across the country who set out not to defeat anyone, but rather to persuade everyone.
There will be many articles about key players and decisions in this campaign, but for me the heroes are the four people who stood in the rain at a Yes Equality table in Tinahely, Co Wicklow; the men and women who knocked doors in Dungloe, Co Donegal; and who talked to their neighbours in Kilmoyler, Co Tipperary. They changed everything utterly.
I sat after having coffee with some friends on Wednesday and two young men walked by holding hands and smiling, oblivious to us. I fought back tears as I thought of a thousand canvassers. "My God, look what they've done," I thought.
Tiernan Brady was the political director of Yes Equality and policy director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network
OK. Take a second right now and just think about this. When it comes to the big hot button issues-- I mean climate change, and gun control, and abortion rights, and school vouchers, and affirmative action, and Obamacare-- OK. Do you know anybody who has changed their minds? Who firmly was on one side of the issue, and then they read a story in The New York Times or they heard something on Rush Limbaugh, and now they are firmly on the other side? I'm just going to guess. Probably not, right?
In fact, the opposite happens. There's this thing called the backfire effect. It's been documented in all kinds of studies. It shows that when we're confronted with evidence disapproving what we believe, generally we just dig in and we believe it more. And the rare times that people do change, it's slow. You don't just have an argument with your uncle over the invasion of Iraq over dinner, and then at the end of dinner, one of you goes, OK, I no longer believe what I did, you're right. People just don't flip like that, which is why this video is so incredible.
OK. So there are two men standing in a driveway. There's a canvasser with a clipboard. And he's talking to a California voter about gay marriage and it's 2013. And the voter leans against his truck for a lot of the conversation. He tells the canvasser that on a scale of zero to 10, where 10 is definitely vote for gay marriage and zero is definitely vote against, he's a five.
You know-- you know what bothers me is gays that are flaming. Flaming are the ones that are just so damn goofy and all that.
He sort of flips his wrist as he says this.
I worked with one for probably like five or 10 years. He was my father's wife's brother. And I didn't even know he was gay. But he was just really-- he had five sisters. And I just thought he was feminine. And finally he came out and he said he was gay. When they act like that-- to me, I don't care if they do it to other people-- but don't do it to me. Because I don't-- you know.
At the same time, this guy says, he thinks it's only fair that gay people get the benefits of marriage, and they can get on their partner's insurance. And he knows other people who are gay that are perfectly nice, even that flaming guy. Perfectly nice. They're just regular people, he says. They talk for 18 minutes.
And the guy with the clipboard-- he's not a pollster. He's been sent out specifically to change people's minds on this issue. To try to flip them into voting for gay marriage. And so part of the conversation is just about the issue itself, like the pros and cons of gay marriage. Does the voter think it'll have a bad effect on children? What are his concerns about it? The voter explains.
The religious thing would hold me back a little bit. Just because.
I believe in God strongly. And I believe in his ways.
But a lot of the conversation is just them talking in this totally honest way about themselves, and their attitudes about homosexuality, and the voter's experiences with homosexuals. The canvasser-- his name is Richard Joludow-- is gay himself. Not flamboyant gay, by the way. Silver hair, goatee, a contractor in the construction business. And here's just how real and free-floating this conversation is. At one point, the voter feels comfortable enough to ask him--
At what point did you realize you were gay? How does a child realize they're gay?
You know, that's a hard-- I could think back to third grade. And I had a crush on a boy in the class. And it wasn't sexual. I didn't know what that was. But I can still remember kind of what he looks like. I'm pretty sure I remember his name still. And I remember being heartbroken when he left early in the first part of the semester there.
And some people think that being gay is a choice. I was talking with a voter and was telling me he thought it was a choice. And I said my choice was to accept being gay. And of course, I tried to be straight. And that just wasn't working.
Well, yeah. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. [LAUGHS]
And then at that point, the canvasser, Richard, very skillfully brings them back to the topic at hand.
So your vote has a lot of influence on how my life goes. I'm with somebody now that I'm hoping to get engaged or go and have a full-out marriage. So your vote would be very important to-- it would affect my life.
Your life and a lot of other people, too.
That's correct, that's correct.
That's a lot to think about, too. Cause after meeting you, you're a hell of a nice guy.
Then Richard asked the voter for a second time, OK, on a scale of zero to 10, what's the chance that he would vote for gay marriage? His answer the first time was five. Now it's eight. Barely 14 minutes have passed.
You make a really good presentation.
Thank you, sir.
And even more amazing than the fact that this actually worked is that it lasted. Richard was part of an army of hundreds of volunteers around Los Angeles who were sent out to change people's minds. And a study by researchers at UCLA and Columbia University found that a year later, not only did these voters stay convinced, they also convinced others in their own households to switch. Apparently neither of those things ever happens.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our radio program, in this world where it is incredibly rare for anyone to change their minds, we have three stories about the very infrequent instances where that does happen, where people change their minds over fundamental things that they believe. Why does it happen in these particular unusual circumstances? We explain. Stay with us.
And let's just keep going with this story. This story is Act One, which we're calling Do Ask, Do Tell.
Where that video you just heard came from was a very unusual campaign to change voters' minds in California. And the campaign came about because of desperation. It was created in the wake of the 2008 election. And you may remember one of things on the ballot in that election was California's Proposition 8, Prop 8. At the time, gay marriage was officially legal in California-- had been legal for half a year. Then opponents of gay marriage gathered signatures, put the issue on the ballot. Not the gay organizers were worried-- in fact, anything but. Polls had them solidly ahead.
Hey, liberal, progressive California. This is a no-brainer. And we lost.
Steve Deline is a field organizer with the Leadership LAB at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which is a very large multimillion-dollar nonprofit, the biggest LGBT organization in the world.
We lost by a decent margin. And it was devastating. Because everyone in California and beyond expected us to win that election.
People were shocked and angry and despairing.
That's Dave Fleischer. He's a political operative that the Los Angeles LGBT Center flew in to figure out what in the world they were going to do after this defeat. It was his idea to go out and do something that apparently is just never done.
Let's go to the neighborhoods where we got crushed and talk to the people who voted against us and ask them why they did that. And when I suggested the idea, Ira, to be totally honest, I didn't know if those voters would talk with us. I'd never done anything like this.
Not only had he never done anything like this, he'd never heard of anybody else doing it, either. And he'd been in politics for over 40 years-- the campaign manager for candidates in New York City, organizing minority voters in Ohio, organizing for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
I've been doing political work my whole adult life. I've been doing organizing since I was a boy. And conventional wisdom among political practitioners is you don't talk to the people who are against you.
OK, note what he's saying here. It's not just that you don't try to swing them over to your side. You don't talk to them at all.
You spend your time and energy talking first to people who completely agree with you to make sure they vote. And then you go to this tiny, tiny, tiny-- and I mean tiny-- universe of people who you've detected as quote-unquote "undecided," which itself is a very misleading term. And that's it.
Until he said this to me, it had never occurred to me that all the billions of dollars spent on politics in this country is mostly making messages that say, you already love this or you already fear that. So here's how you should vote. There's not much effort to change anybody's underlying political beliefs, to get your opponents to agree with you.
So now Dave was going to send dozens of volunteers into Los Angeles neighborhoods that had overwhelmingly voted against them to talk. And because nobody ever does this, field organizer Steve Deline says the first question was--
First-- I mean, I'll be honest. At first, it was just seeing if we could even have a conversation with someone who didn't agree with us. If they would even talk to us. That was literally the first part of the experiment.
The organizers had assumed that these voters were against gay marriage because they didn't know any gay people. And the first surprise was most of them did. But they'd never sat down and had a real conversation about homosexuality in their lives.
And figuring out what to say to these voters to change their minds about gay marriage? It took them a really long time to figure that out. It was not obvious at all how to do it. And they tried lots of stuff that just fizzled. And the missteps are actually kind of interesting, because they point to what does not work and what does work to get any of us to change our minds.
Like for instance, the first thing that they tried was an appeal to idealism, to principles. Stuff we all agree with.
Like this is about equality. It's about the golden rule and treating each other the way we want to be treated.
The problem with that, they found, is that it kept the conversation at this very rational, reasonable, intellectual level.
And that's not where people make their decisions about issues like this. People make their decisions about how they're going to vote on this at a gut level. And at a visceral level. And at an emotional level.
If anything, talking to people about ideals like equality and what marriage means actually made canvassers miss opportunities to talk about stuff that would be way more effective. Like with this voter, who voted against gay marriage for religious reasons.
I have two very good male friends that want to get married.
What are their names?
[BLEEP] and [BLEEP].
We're beeping their names to protect their privacy.
And do [BLEEP] and [BLEEP] know how you feel about this issue?
They don't. How do you think they would feel if they were aware of--
[BLEEP] is a very good friend of mine. Extremely good friend of mine. And I think he would be disappointed. But he's never asked me how I felt about it.
Sure. And so it sounds like you're very fair. You want people to have the same rights.
A plane's coming in so it's hard to hear. But the canvasser's saying, "It sounds like you want people to have the same rights as other Americans." And right there, Steve says, by doing that, the canvasser has made a mistake. Because she's moving the conversation away from the personal and the emotional, towards these abstract ideas of equality and equal rights.
It's kind of retreating from the thing that is probably on the canvasser's mind, but she's maybe a little nervous to ask, which is why don't you want [BLEEP] to get married if he means this much to you? Basically, we don't know anything about [BLEEP]. We don't know. When did she find out that he was gay? What did she feel like when she first found out that he was gay? Did it scare her? Was it no big deal? Have they been able to talk about it? Does she know his partner? All these things that would help us understand, OK, you know someone who's gay, but you're still worried what might happen if he got married. So what's that all about, you know?
This is what they learned-- to stop telling people things. That they should have no road map for the conversation. Instead, the canvassers could talk personally about their own experiences. That seemed to help and connect with voters. But that, by itself, was not enough. The most important thing they could do was, they had to listen. And when the voter gave a clue about something that seemed real and emotional and important to them, find out more. See where it leads.
And I think the big revelation was that our job was actually to go and give them the chance to talk about their own life. And realize that maybe that led them to conclusions that were a little different than they'd thought.
The very first conversation that captured this new approach on video was this voter that they all came to call Mustang Man, because the interview happened in the guy's driveway with this beautiful vintage Mustang that he was very proud of that had been his wife's.
Some people say, "When my wife died, it broke my heart." Well, no. It didn't break my heart. It put a hole in it. And it won't heal. My wife's been gone 11 years now. It feels more like 11 days. I've never gotten over my wife.
The canvasser here is actually Dave Fleischer, the guy whose idea it was to originally go out and talk to voters. And he does not say anything at all to this guy about ideals. He doesn't pitch him any reasons to vote for gay marriage. Instead, he asks about the gay people in this guy's life. And mostly, he just stands there as the voter just sort of connect the dots in his own life that he had never bothered to connect before.
And then marriage, I can even tell, just the way you talk about her--
I would want these gay people to be happy, too. I've got a gay couple across the street there. She's a lesbian. And I get along just great with them. In fact, she parks her car in my yard because we got so many cars here, people have no place to park in the street. So I let her park here. And they're wonderful people. They don't bother anybody. You don't see them trying to hit on other women or whatever. They're happy. Just like I was with my wife.
You know this issue is going to come up for a vote again in the future.
I would vote for it this time.
Vote in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry? Why does that feel right to you?
Let's see. [SIGHS] How would I say that? I would hope that they would find the happiness that I had with [? mine. ?] If you could have that kind of relationship with your partner or the other sex, I would say you're a very lucky person. Because I know I had it. But yeah, that's what I would wish on them. That they'd be as happy as I was with mine. Irrelevant by getting with the other sex.
It did occur to the organizers that as sincere as these conversations seemed, maybe the voters were just being polite at the end. And when they said they would vote for gay marriage, they were just saying what they thought the canvassers wanted to hear-- hadn't really changed their minds. Which is why they invited in two political scientists-- one from UCLA named Michael LaCour, another from Columbia University named Donald Green-- who designed a case controlled study that was eventually published in the journal Science. Green told me that he expected the results would show--
Short-term effects. I thought that those effects would subside in a few days' time.
He thought that because pretty much, that's what always happens. It's rare for people to change your opinions. And it's temporary.
Because very often in public opinion research, which you tend to see in the wake of political events, is a short-term bump followed by a kind of re-equilibration to a pre-existing baseline.
In other words, people go back to believing what they used to. And the big surprise was six months, nine months, a year after the canvassers visited, the voters stayed changed. The researchers were so skeptical that this could be real that they did the entire study a second time-- a huge cost, by the way. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. And again, the same result. Professor Green says he and his colleagues have read 900 papers. And they haven't seen anything like this result-- anyone who's changed people's views and it lasted like this.
But there's an important details in their findings. The voters who talked to straight canvassers-- they changed their opinions. But it lasted just for a couple weeks. Then they went back to their original opinions. It was only the voters who talked to gay canvassers whose opinions changed and stayed changed a year later. For those voters, the numbers are impressive. Before talking to the canvassers, 47% of these voters supported gay marriage. Immediately after the canvas, it jumped six points higher. And then a year later, it was even higher than that. It was 62%. A total growth of 15%, which Steve Deline points out is--
More than enough added support to go from losing an election to winning one.
By the way, the control group-- voters who were not canvassed about gay marriage at all-- they also increased support for gay marriage that year. Because we live in a country where attitudes are changing on this issue everywhere. But the control group only rose by three percentage points, much less than 15%.
It seemed like they'd invented something new, a new tool to use to change people's opinions. But they wondered if it only applied to this one issue. And maybe they picked an easy target, after all-- trying to flip people on an issue that the whole country was changing on anyway.
So they decided to try the new technique with an issue where public opinion has been deadlocked for years. Abortion. These canvassers, no surprise, were pro-choice. And they teamed up with Planned Parenthood to do the canvassing.
Hi. We're talking to registered voters in your neighborhood today about their views on abortion.
A canvasser with a clipboard talks to a California voter through a screen door. The canvasser's young with tattoos and a halter top. The voter's older and heavy-set with wire-rimmed glasses. She's a nurse. And when asked where she is on a scale of zero to 10, where zero means women should have no access to abortion and 10 means they should have full access, she says zero. She's Catholic, from Mexico.
And then they start this conversation. And here's how the canvasser tries to kick things off in a way that's going to get the voter talking about her real experiences and her real feelings on this very delicate issue.
So abortion isn't something that a lot of people talk about, which is why we're out here today talking to people about abortion. Have you ever had a conversation with someone about your thoughts on abortion?
She says it was when they were teenagers, when each first got her period.
How did that feel for you to talk to your daughters?
It's not easy. Especially because in my country, they have taboos. A lot of taboos. My mother is one of the person, never talking about sexual relations or conceptions. That's why I try to be very open with my daughters.
My mother's from the Philippines. And my mother went through the same feeling. It's not something that you talk about.
No. It's not. And my family is the same.
My mother never talked to me about abortion. In fact, it was a really scary thing to talk about. When I got my period, I was 12 years old.
What follows is just an intensely real conversation about their lives. The voter says that when she was six, her mother miscarried a baby. But nobody explained what was going on to her. When she was 11 and got her period, nobody explained what was happening and how scary that was. And so she tried to be different with her daughters. That's why she became a nurse, to help women. Now and then the canvasser points out things and underlines things in the voter's life story, nudging her to kind of connect the dots. Like when the voter talks about her daughters, the canvasser says--
It sounds like you are very supportive of their choices, even if you may not agree with them.
I try to do.
But mostly they just swap stories. And 15 minutes into this 22-minute conversation, the canvasser reveals this.
I had an abortion in November this past year.
I'm so sorry.
It wasn't the wrong choice for me, because that's what felt right for me. But I was alone. And it was scary. It was because I don't know how to talk about it with people. Like my family, my mother loves me. And so does my papa and my sister.
I know. But it's hard. And you carry it for the rest of your life. It's your decision. But you carry it for the rest of your life.
One of the things that I struggled with in telling my family is this idea that my family is going to love me less.
Would you ever love your daughters less?
It's a moment that's simultaneously intimate and manipulative and honest. All at once. And it works. After this, the canvasser asked the voter again to rate on a scale of zero to 10 where she stands on access to abortion. Remember, she was a zero before.
We have that same zero to 10 scale where zero means no access and 10 means full access.
Researcher Michael LaCour is running a study about the abortion canvassing. This one hasn't been published yet. He's only been tracking the voters for 200 days so far. But preliminary data indicates that the canvassers did change people's minds. The number of voters who favored abortion to be legal in all cases grows five percentage points after talking to the canvassers. And the 5% stayed that way. They haven't changed back 200 days later. But-- and this is the important but-- that change only happens when the canvassers are women who've had abortions who reveal that fact to voters. Other canvassers don't get the long-term change. So in a sense, it's very similar to what happens with gay canvassers talking about gay marriage. When the people most affected by an issue show up at your door and talk to you, that's the thing that can change your mind.
Of course, it was liberals doing this canvassing. So they pushed a liberal agenda. But researcher Donald Green says conservatives could probably use this technique just as productively.
Probably so. I think it's a matter of, again, changing the face that people associate with a given issue. So you can imagine, for example, a conservative group doing this on something like school choice.
So in other words, parents, or maybe even high school kids who had been in a certain kind of school would go out and go door to door and just talk in a heartfelt way about their experiences in school.
Do you think it could work for abortion for the other side? Women who regretted having an abortion would go door to door and just talk about that in a real way.
It could be. I think what's kind of interesting about this is that when I talk to professionals about this technique, this does not inspire a lot of interest on their part. Because of course, it can't be done on a large scale at low cost. And they don't want to invest the kinds of resources and training and supervision necessary to generate an army of canvassers that can actually change minds.
It is expensive. The Los Angeles LGBT Center spent nearly $2.5 million over four years and reached just 12,000 voters. That is not many voters when you consider they last Prop 8 by 600,000 votes. In a state like California with 17 million voters, they'd have to spend a real fortune to have an impact on any election. Cheaper, by far, to make a scare ad and run it on local TV around the state-- you know, the way politics usually works.
Coming up, getting criminals to change by giving them exactly what they want-- or one of the things they want, anyway. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, the incredible rarity of anyone changing their minds. We have stories today about why it happens in the rare instances that it does happen. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Crime Pays.
So Richmond, California is right across the bay from San Francisco. And it has been a pretty violent place. Quick illustration of that. The city's police chief, Chris Magnus-- at a press conference, he holds up a cellphone to play a recording made at 11:00 at night there.
He starts to put the cell phone down, then realizes it's not over.
Back in 2006, Richmond was named the ninth most dangerous city in the country, with 42 murders for a population of about 100,000. Then they brought in a new police chief and started doing all kinds of things differently. And it worked. Homicides are now a third of what they were. Crime has dropped in a way that is dramatic and impressive. And police say that one of the things that helped is a program called the Office of Neighborhood Safety, or ONS. Bland name for what is actually a very unusual program with one particular tactic that you do not hear about people trying very often. Joe Richman explains.
The big aha moment for the head of ONS, DeVone Boggan, came when he was in a meeting with police officers. They told him a number-- that Richmond police believed that 70% of the shootings in the city involved just 17 guys.
17 people. And I'll tell you, I almost flipped out of my chair. Cause I was like, 17 people? That's nothing.
Boggan realized that if they could reach just those 17 guys and get them to change, they could really make a dent in the problem. He asked the police for a list of those 17 names. He did his own research and added more names. To get on that list, Boggan said, you basically had to have shot someone.
Next, he put together a team of street outreach workers. All of them were from Richmond. Most had served time in prison themselves. And he sent them out to get to know the guys on the list and deliver this message-- come to a meeting and we will provide you with a lifestyle alternative that could change your life for the good. Boggan had no idea if any of them would come.
The meeting was scheduled three months later. By that time, a couple of guys on the list were dead. One was in jail. Four others weren't interested. But the rest of the guys agreed. 21 guys.
Boggan has a sense of theater. And rather than hold the meeting in one of the neighborhood community centers, he had the men come to City Hall. The meeting took place in a fancy conference room with views of San Francisco across the bay.
It's a square table. Great wood. It's a good room. They come in and they have name placards-- their full names, not their street names. Information packets. Things to sign. We wanted them to walk into the room and go, what the heck is this?
But it was what Boggan did at the end of that meeting that really got everyone's attention, both inside and outside of that room.
I go into my pocket. And I pull out envelopes. And I handed each of the young men envelopes. And I told them to open the envelope. And they did. And they each had $1,000 check. And they didn't believe that it was real.
$21,000 in $1,000 checks were given out that day. The message was that changing their lives should be treated like a job. But the money was also a type of marketing strategy, because Boggan wanted the news to spread through the neighborhoods of Richmond. And it did.
That first meeting was five years ago. And since then, they've done it every 18 months with a new group.
Everybody do me a favor. If you have not signed the sign-in, sign the sign-in after you've signed your paperwork. Date your paperwork.
All of the guys in the meeting are African American. They're spread out evenly around the conference table, behind name plates with Mr. in front of their names. But these guys look really young. Some of them are just 15 or 16. They definitely don't look like a city's worst criminals. It's different from the meeting five years ago, because they've had so much success with the older guys. Now, they say, they're fishing upstream. Taking younger guys who have gotten in less trouble. This is the youngest group they've ever had.
Today's meeting is led by Sam Vaughn, one of the program's outreach workers. Everyone who shows up knows what's coming, that they're going to get paid. Sam Vaughn tells them straight up.
The problem is, folk don't believe. They don't feel like you deserve it. Folk don't feel like-- that's a waste of money. Might as well save that money for the jail cell.
We don't believe that that's the case. We're doing this because this community and this city cannot be safe without partnering with you. And you deserve it.
So what would these guys actually do to deserve their money? They'll put together a life map with specific benchmarks. And they'll get checks as rewards-- for getting a GED, a driver's license, parenting and finance classes, job training, a job. For now, the first step is to agree, in writing, to an 18-month process of change. And no gunfire.
So if y'all don't got a problem with that, y'all can sign the first sheet.
[INAUDIBLE] law school.
So you can sign this again. So you sign both of them.
As the guys sign their contracts, Sam Vaughn passes out their first reward. It's not $1,000 checks anymore. Just $100 Visa gift card. But they find it works just as well.
That is $100 Visa gift card. All right? Pay your phone bill. Buy some kicks. Whatever it is you're trying to do.
You're more than welcome. Thank you. Thank you for making us a priority today. We appreciate you.
A few days later, Sam Vaughn is driving around the neighborhoods of Richmond, which is how he spends most of his work day.
Across the railroad tracks into north Richmond. And we'll ride around. We'll see folks we know. We'll hop out. And we'll talk with them. Sometimes we're looking for folks. I'm sorry, hold on.
(ON THE PHONE) Bro. I'm all right.
Sam Vaughn is an agent of change in the city of Richmond. That's his actual job title. Neighborhood change agent. And this is what changing someone's life often looks like. Tiny fixes. Being there to remove obstacles, however small, to keep the person on track.
(ON THE PHONE) You just go up there and let them know you're trying to start a payment plan on a citation that you've got. You've got to give them 10% down and then you can pay monthly. So if you ain't got the whole $400--
Sam's on the phone with a guy named Cardell who just joined the program. Cardell was stopped in Sacramento a while back and given a ticket for driving without a license. He never paid the fine. And today is his court date. Sam convinced Cardell to deal with it. So Cardell drove without a license to the courthouse in Sacramento to start paying his ticket for driving without a license.
(ON THE PHONE) You have to make the minimum payment. All right, bro. All right.
Sorry. That happens a lot. Because most young people out here, they never get their license because they've gotten tickets before they've gotten their license. And then they never pay their tickets, because the cost of those tickets are insane, especially after you failed to go to court. So now the seat belt ticket that was $92, now you owe $2,200 a year later, because you haven't done anything. And you don't live at the address that they sent the ticket to. It's just chaos.
And now I'm ready to go to work. But I don't have a license. I've gotten to a place in my life where I want to do right. But there's so much holding me back. You kind of give up. So you just stuck in this life, trying to find any kind of way to make a buck. And it definitely deflates them. It gets them to a place where, why am I trying?
And I'm sorry, this young man is at the desk calling me.
(ON THE PHONE) Hey, bro.
Cardell calls back.
(ON THE PHONE) Hold on. Hold on one second.
He doesn't have his state ID number.
I'm so glad I brought this bag.
But Sam does. Sam pulls the car over at a 7-Eleven, digs out a manila folder, and reads the number into the phone.
(ON THE PHONE) Hello? It's F as in Frank.
Driving around with Sam, it feels as close to being with change expert as I can imagine. He's thought a lot about how people change. So I kept peppering him with questions with the word change in them. 24 questions. I listened back later and counted. I was looking for some theory about what it takes for people to transform themselves. And he tried to play along.
So yes, I know you're trying to get that little plug and that little one-liner. I just don't know how you're going to make it work. [LAUGHS] I just don't. But changing your mind is the easiest part in the world. Saying, "This is something that I want to do. I believe that I can do this. I believe I can be a different man. I believe I can be successful. I believe I can be a good father. I believe I can stop using drugs. I believe I can get a job." And believing all these things is fantastic. But if I don't have the tools and the mechanisms to do something different, I revert back to my old ways.
Like if I want to be a vegetarian, but then there ain't no vegetarian food, I'm just eating apples. That's the only thing they got. I'm back on meat in a week for sure. That's just what it is.
Giving people these tools takes time. Sam and the other change agents check in with the guys in the program pretty much every day. Sam is here to meet with a guy who signed up four days ago.
You ain't got no gun?
It's in the house.
Why it ain't on your waist?
This is Deandre.
First of all, I, don't really like you. No, I'm joking, dog. [LAUGHS]
He's 20 years old, although he looks 16. They're standing next to Sam's car parked in Deandre's mother's driveway.
Real talk. I'm glad you decided to do this. For me, what it's showing is that you're trying to do something different with your life. And you possibly think that's that baby coming. So I'd ask you, why don't you tell me how that happened, though, bro? And not the specifics, because I know how it happens. But how did you let that happen? How would you get to a place where you feel like you're ready to be responsible for another life, when you can't even figure out your own right now?
I think that's probably what it took for me to realize what I got to do, to maybe better myself so I can make a better situation for my child.
I mean, congratulations, but damn at the same time.
All through this conversation, Sam doesn't miss a chance to nudge, to clarify, to keep things realistic.
When's she due?
You've got four months. What are you trying to accomplish in four months before your baby get here?
A lot. I need a job.
Let's be realistic. I want you to say that list, but then we're going to have to be realistic about it, too. So four months. What are you trying to accomplish?
I want to accomplish my GED, a job, and be wealthy.
You're trying to be wealthy in four months? Like, emotionally wealthy? Or financially wealthy?
What's your definition of wealthy? What amount of money is that?
A couple thousand? Oh, you can have that saved for sure. But if you think, four months, you're just going to have a hundred stacks in the bank, that's just unrealistic. I'm glad you said GED before job. Because that's being realistic. License.
[? There. ?]
All right. Well then, that's what we [? own here. ?]
All right. See you later.
For sure, dog.
Back in the car, Sam gives a recap.
I believe he can do it. I do. I believe he has everything it takes to do it. But then he also has to get lucky. Let's not live in a fairy tale land. He's about to have a child in four months. So what happens when that baby needs diapers and food? He's going to provide for his child the best he knows how. And that could possibly lead him to jail or prison. So he's going to have to get lucky. He's going to have to be able to do some things that he probably shouldn't do and get away with them until he gets to a place to where he ain't gotta do them no more.
That's just being realistic.
That's the reality of it.
This surprised me, the pragmatism of it. They don't expect the guys to change all at once. They know it's going to take a while before they stop committing crimes. And they don't give up on them when they screw up. I met a graduate of the program named D'vondre Woodard. He's 25 now, has a great paying job. He's a big success in the program. And he told me this story.
Four years ago, he was doing well enough in the fellowship that he was given a special reward. ONS has found that even more attractive than the financial stipend is the chance to travel. He'd been to Mexico, South Africa. And in 2011, D'vondre was invited to represent the program in Washington, DC, at President Obama's State of the Union address.
I just remember Obama speaking.
You're a part of the American family.
And I just remember as he spoke, he always paused. He never "um," you know. Professional with it.
There was D'vondre in the audience, in a suit and tie, on national television, a representative for the ONS program. The thing was, at this point, D'vondre was still selling drugs. He had made changes, for sure. And D'vondre says they were important changes.
It wasn't the same drugs, like cocaine, riding around with guns, looking for people. No. My life was totally changed. I'm not doing that no more. What I'm doing is marijuana. A bag here. Bag here. Get pulled over with that, they're not going to take you to jail for that. They're looking for guns and cocaine. That's all the police is looking for.
Before he'd make the jump and stop selling drugs completely, D'vondre first wanted a job, a well-paying one. The guys in the program can make as much as $300 to $1000 a month, depending on how well they're meeting their goals. Real money, but not enough to replace with some of them could make selling drugs.
D'vondre figured out a job he wanted, doing maintenance in an oil refinery, like the Chevron plant nearby. He did a six-month training course, only to find out afterwards that he would need a special credential from Homeland Security for this sort of work. And D'vondre didn't qualify because he was a felon.
So with help from ONS, he appealed. He got letters of recommendation. He wrote an essay about his past and how he had changed. And he waited for a decision.
About two years.
It took you two years?
It took me two years.
To get those credentials.
It was a waiting game. It was about being patient.
And you liked the idea of that job more than selling drugs?
Yeah. Because it's a job. It's a job. A W-2 form. Taxes, W-2's. How the system works, society's system, the United States' system.
D'vondre got his credentials and learned he would start his new job in a month. And it was at that point-- 30 days away from a brand new job-- that's when D'vondre decided to go cold turkey on illegal activity. No more drug dealing. He said it was like giving himself a test. And he passed.
I let it go. I stopped doing what I was doing. I didn't have to no more. I just put it down. Got rid of it. I don't need it no more.
Over the past five years, 68 guys have gone through the ONS fellowship program. How did they do? Four are dead. A few others are in prison. But of the 68, 43 have completed their goals and graduated. But even more important than those numbers, the overwhelming majority of the guys who have gone through the program-- whether they graduated or not-- have had no new arrests or charges for gun-related activities. And by majority, I mean 80%, according to a report that's about to be released by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that studied the ONS program. Criminologists I talked to said anything over 50% would be considered exceptional. You'd expect most of them to fail.
But the numbers that have received the most attention are the ones with dollar signs in front of them. There have been headlines like "paying people not to kill" or just "crime pays." And internet comments like, "So all I have to do is threaten to kill someone and I get free money from the government? How do I sign up for this gravy train?"
In Richmond, there are plenty of straight-A students or valedictorians from poor families who aren't selling drugs, aren't committing crimes, aren't picking up guns. And they're not getting a stipend from the city for reaching their goals. And Sam Vaughn, who's been with the program, working with these guys for years, he understands the criticism.
I get it. I get it. I understand it 100%. I was in prison. Society didn't think I deserved anything. I got a college education in prison. Folks had an issue with that. "I work my ass off and I can't afford to pay for my kids' college, this dude breaks the law and goes in here and gets a free education." I understand. I understand that balance. But once again-- and if you want to call it pragmatism, yeah, that's what it is-- I'm coming home. Who do you want to live next door to you? The dude who got the college education and who was able to get in those classes and was able to get a domestic violence certificate or substance abuse certificate? Folk who are really in there working on themselves? Or the dude who's sitting out on the yard playing dominoes all day and working out? Who do you want coming next door to you?
There's no other city in America right now that's doing what Richmond is doing-- giving criminals money to turn their lives around. In most places, it would be a tough sell. But the city was desperate. And sometimes that's what it takes for things to change.
Joe Richmond. He runs the Radio Diaries podcast, which this week has a story about a different guy who was in the ONS program. A guy who was shot 22 times. That's at radiodiaries.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Act Three, Glacial Change. So far today on our show we've had opinion. We've had criminal behavior. And now we move to a third thing that can be notoriously difficult to change. And that is the mood of an unhappy teenager. Miki Meek explains.
When Zalena Su'e was 15, this is what her life was like. Her family lived in a beach house on an island in the South Pacific. And there were these bright green trees growing in her yard. They're called breadfruit trees. It was pretty dreamy.
It was literally my house, and then the road, and then the ocean. That was it.
Yeah. Imagine the most beautiful mountains there and the sun sinking between those mountains. That was my view every single day. Just super easy to recognize paradise.
This was American Samoa, a US territory in Polynesia. Zalena had a tight-knit group of friends who all went to the same big public high school known for its champion football team, the Tafuna Warriors. They went to games and hung out in the bleachers and talked endlessly about their lives. She was also surrounded by tons of family-- aunts, uncles, and cousins. And on top of that was her church. She loved singing with them.
But then one day about two years ago, this all changed.
My dad's just like, "I think God's calling us to go to Alaska." I'm like, where? [LAUGHS] What? That's not in my vocabulary. What? And he just said, "Whittier, Alaska."
What had happened was their pastor had sent out an email looking for someone to lead a new branch of their Baptist Church-- in, yes, Alaska.
I saw igloos. And I thought penguins were everywhere. I thought polar bears were walking down the street. I just saw frozen wasteland. That's it. No. No, no. We thought it was a joke. But apparently he'd sent in an email, he's like, "Put me on the waitlist." And our senior pastor's like, "There is no waiting list. And I think you're perfect."
Not that her dad had ever started a church or been a pastor. He was a high school science teacher. And until now, no one in Zalena's family-- not her mom, not her three younger siblings-- had any idea that this was a dream of his.
Oh, yes. They complained a lot. But this is something that I really want to do a long time ago. This is my chance.
This is your chance?
Yeah. To do God's work.
For her father, this wasn't a decision to make. It was a calling. At church, they often heard the phrase, "walk by faith and not by sight." And that is quite literally what they did. They sold all their belongings and used all of their savings on the move, including what they'd put away for Zalena to go to college. Then they got on a plane with two suitcases each and headed north without knowing a thing about where they were going. No one in the family even Googled the town to take a look at what they were getting into.
21 hours later, Zalena and her family landed in Anchorage, where a senior pastor running a Samoan church there picked them up. To get to Whittier from Anchorage, you go south about 60 miles and then you hit a mountain with a 2 and 1/2 mile tunnel. It's dark and narrow and shuts down at night. Zalena felt nervous and claustrophobic. But she also tried to be optimistic.
And then we came to the tunnel, and it was like, boom. Gloomy clouds and it's super dark. It looked like something out of one of those horror shows. Rain was just falling.
Did you say out of a horror show?
Yes. It was terrible. And I just saw this huge building. 15 stories. So our senior pastor was like, "Everybody lives in here, by the way."
By that, he meant the whole town lived in that one building-- almost all of its 200 residents. Post office, stores, all in that one building.
And I was freaking out on the inside, thinking, "This is where I'm supposed to be?" And I cried.
To be technical about it, there are actually a few things outside the one big building. There's a school right behind it, which kids get to through an underground tunnel in the winter. There's one bar, an inn, and a convenience store. And there are parking lots filled with old fishing boats. But that's about it. Everything else takes place inside the building, a pink and tan relic of the Cold War.
It used to house soldiers. The US Army actually picked Whittier as a port in the 1940s because the weather sucked so badly. There's so much cloud cover there that it was good for hiding ships and ammunition from enemy planes. But when the military pulled out, civilians started moving in. And soon, the building was filled with retirees.
That's the post office.
Zalena gave me tour down a dimly lit hallway with linoleum floors and brick walls painted off-white.
This is the Whittier city officia. So this is like, mayor--
We're on the first floor, which has the police station, laundromat, a tiny grocery store called Kozy Korner, a notary. This is Whittier's version of Main Street. The rest of the floors in the building are all residential.
Do different floors have different reputations?
I think so. The sixth floor, we're pretty loud. And then certain floors are like old people floors where only old people live.
I asked her to take me to the top floor of the building.
I feel like it's mostly rich people who live up here. It has a lot of really nice apartments up here. Like you have a sauna in your living room.
You wouldn't know that this was the rich floor. It's pretty standard-- carpeted floors and green doors with numbers.
We went to the 14th floor. There's no 13th floor, so straight to the 12th. They all look the same.
What if I made you do this on every floor?
It's gonna be the same view.
I hope you don't mind that. [LAUGHS]
During her first few months in Alaska, Zalena tried to pretend that she wasn't really there. She only listened to Samoan music and ate Samoan food. Sometimes she even wore her old school uniform, a maroon sarong. She started shutting herself in her room and made a point of calling Samoa at least three times a day.
I would not go to bed without Skyping somebody back home. It was pretty bad. But it's true. And so I'd go to sleep thinking I'm in Samoa. And I'd wake up be like, [SIGH] I have to go through another day of this.
And this is?
And this is like being dropped on Mars. And you're looking for water. It's like, "What? How can I survive here?"
All six people in Zalena's family were crammed into a tiny apartment in Whittier. She shared a bed with her nine-year-old sister, Mona, and she could hear her neighbors' conversations through the walls.
There were a handful of families in the building from places like the Philippines and Guam. But their kids were much younger than Zalena. There was another girl her age, too, but when Zalena tried introducing herself, the girl blew her off. So Zalena did what a lot of teenagers might do. She shut down.
Meanwhile, once her family got to Alaska, they found out that they'd moved halfway across the world to start a church for only three Samoan families. Zalena's dad was unfazed. He'd been a high school science teacher. But now he got a job doing manual labor in the harbor and used the money to support his family and the new church.
The church is in a windowless room in the basement of the building. On Sundays, Zalena's dad projects a pink and red sunset onto a concrete wall. Everyone in the congregation dresses in bright floral prints, sarongs, and flip flops. The best way I can describe it is that it's kind of like tropical Christian karaoke.
Church was the one thing that Zalena actually looked forward to. Other than that, she rarely left the apartment-- much less the building-- for months, despite her parents' attempts to get her out.
I don't see the draw to leaving my house. The only place that the kids were playing in was the basement. There's no place to go.
What do you mean, the basement?
Cause it rains a lot. So they can't go outside to go play. And so they were playing tag in the basement, which is full of cages, like storage cages. But it looks like a prison down there. And they go play cops and robbers and they think it's fun, and running around. And I'm just like, this is pretty depressing.
For the younger kids, living in the building was like living in one big never ending slumber party. They ran up and down the halls and sang songs in the elevator and took over the lobby after dinner to play games. And because the school's so small, just 35 students, a bunch of them were also in Zalena's classroom.
I was really bummed out, because I was like, oh my gosh. I was looking for the whole senior shebang. Everybody talks about prom, homecoming, football teams, and all these things. And I went to schools that had those. And now I'm here, and it's just like-- I am a senior. I'm a senior. And I'm in the same classroom with a seventh grader.
To make it even worse, one of those seventh graders ended up being Zalena's youngest brother, Philip, who knew exactly how to get on her nerves.
I would tap on the desk. And she would get mad. I would sing out loud and she would get mad.
So what would she say to you?
She(SUBJE said, "Stop it." And I would say, "You're not the boss." And she hates that.
Until very recently, this was Zalena's life in Whittier. And then she hit a point where she knew that if something was going to change, it wouldn't be Whittier. It had to be her. So she started forcing herself to be more social. When she had to share an elevator with a stranger, she'd smile big and say hello. But what really turned things for her in Whittier all came down to this one day.
This is February 24. So that was like our first official "Hey, let's go walk your dog."
The girl who had blown her off when she first moved in-- her name is Sofia-- actually invited Zalena out. They walked down to the ocean with Sofia's dog. Zalena showed me a picture from that day.
So it was funny, cause it was like, "Let's take a silly picture" or something like that. "We need a senior picture." And so she jumped onto the rock next to me and she hooked her left arm over my shoulder. And I was like, "Aw." And in the middle of me exclaiming "aw," somebody took the picture. And so my mouth is open, and we're both smiling.
This happened three weeks before I met Zalena. Since that day, Zalena's been outside the building more times than she had been in months. One day Sofia showed her a favorite secret spot out in the forest. They walked to where there was an old wooden plank in the ground, covered over with dirt and leaves. Sofia pulled up the plank, revealing an abandoned military tunnel. Zalena says it was awesome.
There was like a sisterhood going on right there. Sometimes I feel like a fan girl of hers, cause I'm always just like, "Sofia!" She's my best friend. She hasn't really claimed our best friendship yet, but she knows.
I was thinking about that, too.
Here's Sofia. She moved to Whittier from the Philippines about four years ago. Before Zalena moved in, she had been the only kid in her grade.
Sometimes I feel bad that Zalena always says that I'm her best friend. But then I never actually say that Zalena's my best friend.
I feel like it's awkward.
Is she your best friend?
Are you gonna tell her?
Yeah. Maybe tomorrow at school.
After finding this one friend, the one great friend, Zalena stopped seeing Whittier as this gloomy place she couldn't escape from and now described it as--
Now I would say enclosed serenity.
Zalena can now list off dozens of things that are great about Whittier. And a lot of them are the exact things she used to hate about the place.
Everything's in one building. There's just that kind of intimacy where you can go to someone's house and just start cooking. And the mountains-- they're very flawlessly cut, I'd say. They're like diamonds.
Before, you would have looked at them as like--
Before, I would have looked at them as like, "Ew." Because the mountains back home have trees on everything. It's green. But Alaska's beautiful. It's rugged, raw beauty here.
It was kind of like I tripped and then, boom-- fell in love with Whittier. [LAUGHS] And I don't even know how to explain it.
OK, so how would you have rated Whittier when you first got here?
Out of niceness, I would have given it a four out of 10.
And what would you give it now?
Probably an 11. Or maybe a 10 on the bad days.
It blows my mind how much you've changed since you first got here. Because I feel like it can take people a long time to get to that spot or they never get to that spot of liking something or deciding to like something.
Yeah. I feel like I've changed so much. I'm pretty proud of myself for accepting, for getting over it. For getting over the change. I hope that my college is something like Whittier, because I would get around so well.
There's a thing adults tell kids all the time, especially teenagers-- you make your own happiness. It's all about your outlook on things. It's such an irritating cliche. But sometimes it's true.
Miki Meek is one of the producers of our program.
Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Editing help from Joel Lovell and production help from Simon Adler. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show.
Research help today from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Special thanks today to Erika Thompson, Kelly Bender, Jason Reifler, Brendan Nyhan, Robert Cialdini, Gus Levine, and Mark Phillips.
Our website, thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He was doing yoga for a while to relax, but it was not working.
I'm not doing that no more. What I'm doing is marijuana.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
"Are you a real Democrat?"
It was my first door answered by a Real Person, on my first day of canvassing ever. I had introduced myself as a volunteer for Kay Hagan and asked for "Michelle." A suspicious eye peered through a narrow crack. Her question wasn't on my script.
Think on your feet, SG. "Yes, absolutely. I've been a registered Democrat since 1992, and I'm out today supporting the Hagan campaign." I pointed to my badge. "The real deal." The door inched open, and her manner softened. "I'm sorry. I heard about Tillis people going around saying they're Democrats and giving people bad information."
Um, wow. Not expecting that one! Michelle was already on board with Kay but wasn't aware of the early voting days and hours, so I wrote them down for her. She thanked me for my work, reminded me to be careful, and wished me a great day.
No longer a canvassing virgin, I moved along to the next door. More stories and reflection below the squiggle.
As an conflict-averse introvert, initiating conversations with strangers makes me nervous. If the stranger is potentially hostile, you can bet I'm not going willingly. Unless you piss me off.
I'll say almost anything to anyone if I'm pissed enough. And if the 2012 election in North Carolina didn't piss me off enough to get loud, living with the result for the last two years has. When a local staffer called last week and asked me to volunteer for Senator Hagan, it was the push I needed. I said yes and signed up for Saturday afternoon shift canvassing in Charlotte.
Despite my trepidation, I figured I'd be paired with someone a little more experienced to get my feet wet. Um, no. There weren't enough volunteers to pair people up. I was on my own. Armed with only a script, a map, a bottle of water and a long list of voters' doors, I ventured into my assigned neighborhood.
In all, I knocked on almost 40 doors. Most weren't home or didn't answer. Two who answered said they weren't interested and one slammed the door. The sky didn't fall and my ego escaped injury. In one case I knocked on the wrong door, only to meet a pleasant gentleman who was planning to vote for Kay and thanked me for volunteering.
Shit got real at the very end of my shift. "Crystal" heard out my pitch and responded with cynicism. "I'm really not sure who I'm voting for. I don't see any difference between the parties, and I'm hearing things about Hagan I don't like."
I asked Crystal what she'd heard that bothered her. She responded that Hagan hadn't accomplished anything in six years -- a talking point Tillis and friends have been hammering in the TV ads. The sad truth is that many voters are getting their information from those ads.
I reminded her of Tillis's tax cuts for the wealthy on the backs of NC's most vulnerable citizens, his refusal of Medicaid expansion, and his open contempt for teachers and public education. "NC is now 47th in the nation in teacher pay because of the policies of Thom Tillis and the Republican General Assembly," I added. A spark of understanding. She nodded.
"My sister is a teacher," she replied. "She hasn't had a raise in ten years." At that very moment, a little girl of about three emerged from behind Crystal. She looked up at me, smiling, and said "Issues." We both LOLed.
The rest came naturally. "I'm out here on a Saturday afternoon because of kids like her. She deserves the best education in the world, and the only way to turn this state around for her is to vote for Democrats." Now I had her attention.
We talked a little more. She had a few basic questions about government structure that I was glad to answer. She didn't want to fill out a contact card, but I gave her a brochure with Kay's information, adding, "Don't take the TV ads on either side too seriously. Go online and check out each candidate's official position on the issues, then decide for yourself. And then, please vote and ask your family and friends to vote. This election is so important."
Crystal agreed to do so, and thanked me. The little girl laughed, slapped my foot, and said, "Issues. Issues!" Five minutes after we parted, the skies opened up and threw a cold shower on my first time. It went pretty well, I think.
A few closing thoughts.
1. I'm not going to tell you it's easy. It takes a lot of energy for an introvert working solo to canvass for two hours. I will definitely do it again, but would much rather have a partner. My DH has offered to step up, other local volunteers are welcome.
2. OTOH, it's not that hard. With one exception, even the people who refused contact were nice. The lone door slammer didn't hurt my feelings at all. She looked like she was already having a bad day.
3. If my very small sample is any indication, there is a lot of misinformation out there and voters are confused. Every door we knock on, every call we make, brings us closer to reaching another voter who will turn out if someone personally asks them to.
4. Engaging with voters one-to-one, through canvassing or phone banking, hones your chops on the issues. I'm more confident about having those conversations with friends and neighbors after just a couple of hours.
We're all in this together, and the stakes couldn't be higher. The momentary discomfort of risking rejection pales in comparison to a (R) Senate. Even if you've never canvassed or phone banked before, I hope this will encourage you to try it. It's not that bad. It is that important.
My start in organizing came when I started Cub Scouts at age six. In all honesty, I was only in it for the snacks and games, but soon enough I noticed the bricks being laid right up until my graduation as an Eagle Scout. My experiences in scouting gave me the tools needed to organize events such as fundraisers for FIRST Robotics, of which I’m also a proud alumnus.
I’m now an advertising student at Columbia College Chicago. I’ve served as secretary of our Audio Engineering Society chapter, as well as a player, captain, and coach on our basketball team, but it wasn’t until I received a job at Environment New York as a canvasser that I really began to see organizing in a whole new way.
Canvassing is a hard job. There were days when I could feel a real, powerful connection being made with somebody, while others times I couldn't even get anyone to look me in my eyes. Constant rejection and even occasional harassment was part of the job. Still, to this day, it is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
Hours outside in June, while being ignored by countless people passing by may seem to contradict that, but the chance to explore all of New York State inspired me. The importance of protecting the Clean Water Act and the like-minded individuals I worked and bonded with inspired me. Taking photos with our supporters and gathering petition signatures while watching the Rangers play for the Stanley Cup in Bryant Park inspired me. But most importantly, stopping a total stranger to tell them face-to-face why these issues are so important, and then watching as that stranger became a new supporter, an activist, and maybe even an organizer is what truly inspired me. It’s an incredible feeling.
Since Environment New York, I’ve started an internship with Organizing for Action. My role here is different. I’m now using my skills in writing to reach supporters in an entirely new way, but the message remains the same. If there’s something you want to be involved in, something you want to fight for, or even something brand new you want to start, it's up to you to find your inspiration and take action.
Strong organizers are needed to fight back on issues that affect us all
“Every day, people are bombarded with information — from television, the internet, the radio and more. But if you want to get people to engage on issues that matter, there is nothing as powerful as a face-to-face conversation. It’s an opportunity to educate people on important issues, and give them the chance to take action. And when thousands of informed people make their voices heard, that’s the kind of people power that makes real change happen.”
Baloney. As academics who study campaigns, we hear this claim all the time. But we also know it’s important to investigate whether data backs it up. We did. And it doesn’t. In fact, there’s a paradox at the heart of American campaign craft. Mountains of rigorous research show that campaigns should be having personal conversations with voters at their doors. But, campaigns spend almost all their money on TV ads — and, every year, most voters say they’ve never had a conversation about the election at their door. What gives?
By far the most effective way to turn out voters is with high-quality, face-to-face conversations that urge them to vote. How do we know? Nearly two decades of rigorous randomized experiments have proven it.
Alan Gerber and Don Green ran the first of these "field experiments" in 1998. The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing.
The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points).
The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.
Volunteers from the Yes campaign speak with a voter as they canvass for support for the Yes vote in the Pilton area of Edinburgh on September 16, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Given the widely acknowledged importance of a good "ground game," campaigns like to tout statistics that show they’re knocking on huge numbers of doors. These statistics can make their ground games sound quite substantial.
But, in reality, large "knock" numbers often conceal lackluster ground games. Why? Campaign operatives often rush through neighborhoods, hurrying to rack up impressive numbers of "knocks." However, these hurried efforts often fail to reach most voters at all and entail only perfunctory interactions with the voters they do. Campaigns’ ground games can thus sound sizable in terms of "knocks" when they haven’t had any conversations with voters at all.
And, to actually affect voters, research shows that having an actual conversation is crucial. Canvassing seems to work best when voters who don’t care much about politics engage in a genuine conversation about why voting is important. So, when canvassers rush through scripted interactions, just trying to cram their message into voters’ minds, the impacts they leave are minimal — voters might as well have been sitting through a television ad. On the other hand, research has consistently found that authentic interpersonal exchanges usually have sizable impacts.
But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many "field" campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects "smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN." But, Green went on to say, "When I'd inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision."
This suggests a picture that should frighten candidates, campaign managers, and donors alike. Even if field operatives have racked up millions of "door knocks," when one looks under the hood of these operations, there often isn’t much reason to believe they’re having many quality conversations with voters at all.
Another reason to doubt campaigns are running good ground games? Voters don’t appear to be seeing them.
A political organization running a field campaign shared data with us that helps quantify just how invisible the ground game is to the very voters supposedly being inundated with it. (The organization requested anonymity when making public their internal research findings.) During October 2014, this organization ran a field campaign in a hotly contested Midwestern gubernatorial race. According to most accounts, this gubernatorial race witnessed the same all-out ground game as other elections this year, and this organization should thus be thought of as only one of many blanketing supportive voters with personal conversations urging them to vote.
What this organization did allows us to critically evaluate how widespread the ground game was — it ran an experiment in which some voters it was targeting were randomly assigned to receive a knock on their door from organization field staffers while others, a "control group," received no contact from the organization (but still received identical efforts from other groups). After the election, this organization conducted an ostensibly unrelated survey in which they asked voters in the two groups what campaign contact they recalled receiving over the last few weeks from any political organization.
The results? The "control" group who received no contact from this organization remembered getting a knock on the door from any campaign only about 21% of the time. But just one conversation at the door from this organization doubled that figure, to over 40%. With just one contact yielding such a large increase, it's hard to believe the ground game in that race reached anything near saturation.
Source: Survey of voters targeted by campaign in midwestern gubernatorial race.
But what about for mail, phone, and television-based appeals? The numbers for these modes show exactly the opposite: voters were saturated. This organization found that around 9 in 10 voters it targeted recalled receiving phone calls, mailers, or seeing TV ads about the same election. The disparity between these numbers and the same figures for field raise questions about the idea that the ground game is already in full swing.
Source: Survey of voters targeted by campaign in Midwestern gubernatorial race in control group who did not receive canvassing.
(Data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study reveal a similar disparity — a majority of Democratic voters in swing states in 2010 and 2012 recall receiving phone and mail contact, but almost no voters recall someone knocking on their door.)
The same disparity between field and other techniques manifests in patterns of campaign spending. A recent investigation by the New York Times provides a window into how SuperPACs spent their dollars over the last three election cycles. The results are puzzling. Over 80% of these groups’ spending went to TV advertising, followed by mail and online advertising to round out about 90% of spending in total. Finally, in a distant fourth, came field work — capturing less than 5% of campaigns’ budgets.
Somehow, many campaigns aren’t managing to spend much more on the most effective form of voter contact than on radio.
But, even though campaigns spend a very large share of their budget on TV ads, the research on the impacts of TV ads doesn’t bear out the idea that they powerfully influence elections:
First, there’s little evidence supporting the idea that TV ads can mobilize voters to turn out. In 2008, Jon Krasno and Green exploited quirks in media market boundaries to measure the impacts of presidential advertising. Ryan Enos and Anthony Fowler have examined the impact of the presidential campaigns' TV ads in a similar manner. The results? Voters who receive the heavy volume of TV advertising associated with presidential campaigns are no more likely to vote than voters who see barely any. When it comes to turning out new voters, there’s not much evidence TV ads are of much use. (One exception is a study by Vavreck and Green on Rock the Vote’s television ads, which found mild effects among young voters.)
There is similarly limited evidence that TV ads have an enduring impact on voters’ attitudes towards candidates. Yes, ask voters how they feel within hours of seeing a TV ad, and we sometimes see evidence that they’ve been swayed. But these effects usually fade quickly. In one study, Seth Hill, James Lo, Lynn Vavreck, and John Zaller examined the impacts of presidential television advertisements and found that their effects disappeared within days at most. Likewise, in a collaboration with the Rick Perry for Governor campaign, Gerber, Green, and James Gimpel and Daron Show found that Perry’s ads had a noticeable immediate effect but left no lasting trace.
Even if TV ads provide fodder for much punditry or look impressive in a focus group, there’s not much reason to believe they have lasting impacts on voters’ views or behavior.
Campaign consultants, like Republican Mike Murphy (left) and Democrat Bob Shrum (right) typically make more when campaigns spend on ads than when they spend on field operations. (Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
We academics are still scratching our heads about this one. Here, we’ll mention just a few possibilities.
First, managing a canvass operation is difficult and requires considerable recruitment, training, and supervision. It’s a lot easier to write a check to an ad agency or mail firm.
It’s also gotten harder to raise a field army. Decades ago, a rich network of civic organizations — think churches, Elk Lodges, and labor unions — could supply ample volunteers for field work. But, as these organizations’ memberships have flagged, professionally-managed, centralized, DC-based groups with weaker grassroots ties have tended to take their place. As a result, knocking on millions of doors now requires recruiting tens of thousands of temporary field staffers or new volunteers. When faced with a logistical challenge of that scale, it becomes mighty appealing to write a check to an ad firm instead.
There’s also a more cynical possibility — campaign consultants urge campaigns to spend more on ineffective tactics because it boosts their bottom line. Candidates and campaigns rely on consultants’ expertise when allocating precious campaign resources. But many consultants take a cut of ad fees, making a healthy commission when campaigns squander their resources on TV. On the other hand, waging field campaigns tends to be a low margin business and thus prove less financially appealing for consultants to recommend to clients.
As effective as high quality field campaigns are today, they’re likelier to get even better as the research improves. Recent research has shown that the power of personal conversations extend far beyond voter mobilization, and include the potential to build lasting support for marriage equality and abortion. Successful turnout interventions also seem to have lasting impacts on individuals, leading them to become lifelong voters, as well as on their cohabitants. But to take advantage of these innovations, campaigns need to seriously increase their focus on field.
The good news is, the necessary financial resources for waging real ground games are already available — campaigns just have to spend their money right. Consider what would happen if campaigns diverted just some of the money they currently spend on TV towards field. Nearly $1.2 billion was spent on TV ads during the 2014 election cycle, capturing about a third of campaign spending. Imagine if campaigns diverted just 30% of that amount to field, for a $350 million ground game — many times more than the amount campaigns actually spent on field this year. Field operatives can often be hired for about $20 an hour (including overhead) and could have two high-quality 20 minute long conversations with voters every hour, for about $10 per conversation. That all adds up to a staggering reality: campaigns could have had a 20 minute conversation with every single registered voter in a state with a close Senate race — and still afford to blanket the airwaves with ads.
Waging a high-quality ground game isn’t easy — but no one said winning elections was. Before 2016, candidates and campaign consultants need to take a hard look at the science, lest the ground game take a back seat yet again. We may need to knock on their doors, too.
Connecticut State Representative Gregg Haddad recently posted a video offering his support for an Updated Bottle Bill after receiving over 1700 petitions from his constituents in Mansfield, CT. These petitions were gathered by ConnPIRG canvassers, who have been going door-to-door gathering citizen support to update the state's Bottle Bill so that it covers more types of bottles, and encourages more recycling in the state.
Why have conservatives been winning so many political campaigns and policy battles in the past quarter century? Why have so many low- and moderate-income Americans, whose living standards have flatlined, dropped out of the political process? And what will it take to build a winning progressive movement and breathe new life into American democracy?
These questions deserve to be debated in the progressive community, and one prolific writer engaging with them is sociologist Dana Fisher, author of a recent book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, and many articles, including “The Activism Industry,” which appeared in The American Prospect Online. (This piece is the source of the contentions that I'm quoting and responding to here.) Fisher asks many of the right questions about the conservative ascendancy and the progressive eclipse. Unfortunately, she concentrates her criticism on one progressive tool -- canvassing programs which attempt to recruit members and raise funds by going door to door. Repeatedly using the word "outsourcing," she compares canvassing to "corporations that hire workers in India to run their call centers" and claims that it "increases the distance between members and the progressive national groups that claim to represent them" and "leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized."
Like most single-cause explanations of complex problems, Fisher's thesis is faulty. By offering a blanket condemnation of canvassing based on limited evidence, Fisher ignores the diverse range of issues on which canvassing has been used -- and the extent to which it has been proven successful. Indeed, canvassing is one of the all-too-few progressive success stories of the past three decades, and by making it the scapegoat for progressive decline, Fisher risks short-circuiting the thoroughgoing review of progressive strategies and tactics that we so urgently need.
Fisher studied only one national canvassing operation -- the Fund for Public Interest Research -- and bases her conclusions on what she believes she found there. But while the Fund does account for about a third of all progressive canvassing programs, there are other such networks, including Progressive Action Network, Citizens Campaigns Network (created by Clean Water Action), and the Hudson Bay Company, as well as canvassing efforts tied to individual organizations. Such operations generally do not conform to Fisher's grim conclusions, and instead play a positive role in progressive politics. Progressive canvassing helps organizations build membership, raise money, and develop leaders and activists -- especially among the canvassers but also among the people they canvass. That is how we have built and grown many statewide and national organizations, such as Citizen Action of Wisconsin and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Hundreds of leaders of citizens groups, staffers for other progressive organizations such as labor unions, and even elected officials got their start through canvassing.
In fact, far from representing an unhealthy "professionalization" of citizen activism, canvassing is a profoundly small-d democratic way to organize. It involves people talking to one another about public issues and asking them to take action. Unlike direct mail or robo-calls, canvassing involves human interaction. Unlike Internet organizing, canvassing involves face-to-face personal contact.
Moreover, canvassing gives people the sense that they matter. It alerts them to the issues that their elected officials are engaging and encourages them to hold those officials accountable by letting them know the public is watching and concerned. How much more democratic can you get? In the era of “Bowling Alone,” canvassing is part of the solution to, not part of the problem of, declining civic engagement.
Nor does progressive canvassing bear any resemblance to corporate outsourcing -- unless one sees no difference between activists ringing doorbells in Illinois and companies sending American jobs to call centers in India. Most canvassers live in the communities in which they work, and they are genuinely committed to progressive causes: They are not hired hands who canvass for lower energy prices today and higher energy prices tomorrow. In fact, canvassing goals and priorities are usually set by local or state organizations. Canvassing efforts, and the resources that they generate, are not something that a large donor can give or take away.
And canvassing does not, as Fisher contends, discourage the people who participate in it from remaining active in progressive causes. Yes, many canvassers conclude that this kind of work isn't for them, just as many people leave other demanding jobs, including teaching, nursing, and social work. But a good portion of canvassers find that they want to dedicate their lives to progressive activism. It's worth noting that, while Fisher writes that almost all the canvassers she studied are very young, more than one-quarter of the people at a recent conference of progressive canvassers were over 45.
More importantly, canvassing encourages participation in civic life. According to Fisher's own interviews (described on page 57 and 58 of her book), most canvassers say that the experience gave them a chance to participate in the political process on a regular basis, not just during elections, and that they intended to stay in politics after spending a summer going door to door. As Fisher puts it in the book, "Most of them followed through: within the year, 95 percent had written or telephoned an editor or a public official, or had signed a petition about issues that concerned them; 79 percent had attended a public meeting; 77 percent had voted in a national or state election; and 72 percent had participated in a protest or boycott."
So does progressive canvassing hinder progressive politics? Quite the contrary.
Canvassing operations root progressive organizations in Main Street America. For progressive politics to “play in Peoria,” we have to actually talk to people in Peoria. That's what canvassing does. Through such efforts, we hear what people are saying on their doorsteps, we respond to it, and, in the process, we improve our arguments.
Canvassing forces our organizations to talk to people who don't agree with them, find ways to tie people together in a broader national community, and frame issues to have the broadest possible appeal. All that is good for our organizations, good for progressive politics, and good for American democracy.
Because of these strengths, canvassing helps progressives win legislative and electoral victories. Thanks, in large measure, to canvassing campaigns, environmental activists helped win a federal Superfund to clean up toxic wastes, a better Clean Water Act, and protections for nearly 60 million acres of national forests. Canvassing also helped defeat the partial privatization of Social Security. In California, canvassing helped pass a law and, later, a ballot initiative requiring that the state generate a portion of its power from renewable sources. There have been many similar victories on the local, state, and national levels, from the 1980s to the present day.
Canvassing is just as effective in electoral politics. In a survey conducted after the 1998 elections, the public opinion analyst Celinda Lake found that the members of Citizen Action of Wisconsin -- many of whom joined after meeting canvassers -- voted as consistently Democratic as union members. In a more recent survey, the political scientist Donald Green found that people who have been canvassed are 20 percent more likely to vote than those who have not been canvassed. It is also one of the few ways to obtain small, individual donations on a scale that can have real electoral impact under current campaign finance laws.
So is every canvass perfect? Of course not. Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. Certainly, some other ways of connecting with people -- in churches or union halls -- are more effective for building in-depth relationships. But these methods may not reach as many people. As with all our tactics, we need to take a hard look at canvassing, fix what is wrong with it, and build on what is best about it. We should make even more of an attempt to connect canvassers' efforts with other effective and empowering methods for building a progressive movement and a better America.
Heather Booth has been an organizer for social justice since the civil rights and early women's movement, working on issues and politics. She was the founder of Midwest Academy training center and Citizen Action, and is a Vice President of USAction.
Originally Published by The American Prospect.