The Canvassing Experience

Canvassing: 1st day using theMentoring Works2 and Freedom Summer questionnaire (July 10, 2009).   Sorry for the poor quality of the video; it was my first attempt.

If someone would have asked me just a few years ago where American democracy happens, my responses would not have raised many eyebrows: the halls of Congress, a voting booth, a town meeting. These days, however, I would add a rather unlikely location to my list of democratic fora: the front porch. If it is not immediately apparent to you how the place you wipe your feet every evening could share the civic virtues of the places where laws are passed and leaders are elected, you are to be forgiven. Not so long ago, I would have missed the connection too. But then I became a canvasser.

Following my freshman year in college, I spent a summer canvassing for an environmental group in Maryland. For three months, my fellow canvassers and I convened at our office in Baltimore, piled in cars en route to different neighborhoods across the state, spent a few hours knocking on doors, then headed home to unwind and swap stories before we would do it all again the next day. Each day brought a new town, fresh faces, and unique challenges – “work” had never been so much fun.

If the camaraderie and exploration made for a fond memory, it was the work that imparted an enduring lesson in democratic citizenship. Maryland is diverse – a true microcosm of the United States – and that summer we covered nearly all of it. Going door-to-door, I spoke to citizens from all walks of life, from the state legislator who would vote on the bill I was supporting to the suburban mom for whom my visit was an introduction to the issues; from the environmentalist zealous in her support of my cause to the skeptic profuse in his counterarguments. While the backgrounds and receptivity of the people I encountered varied, what remained constant was the overarching sense that we share common lives and common problems, and that citizens are willing to take time away from their private concerns to find solutions together. At the end of each day, I took home a deeper appreciation of community.

I still find irony in that people who lived miles away from me, and whom I might never see again, taught me so much about community. Perhaps I shouldn’t. After all, what’s the difference between someone living halfway across the state – or halfway across the country for that matter – and my next-door neighbor if I never engage with either? And therein lies the value of canvassing: it instills the virtues that keep our American community strong and free – it teaches doorstep democracy. So if someone ever asks you to point out American liberty in action, look to Congress, look to City Hall, look to the ballot box. Just never overlook your own front porch.

-Colby Clabaugh