The Missouri Organizing and Voter Engagement Collaborative (MOVE) is a behind-the-scenes organization that supports grassroots movement organizations developing and implementing integrated voter engagement strategies. Last spring, MOVE wrapped up an intensive, six-week deep-canvassing program with 11 organizers from MOVE member groups*. The twin goals of the effort were to deepen the agency and action of Black, brown, and/or poor voters who have not yet been active in democracy, and to shift conflicted white voters from politics motivated by dog whistles and scarcity into a narrative rooted in solidarity and community.
*MOVE member organizations leading Transformative Conversations work included Missouri Jobs with Justice, Action St. Louis, Metropolitan Congregations United, Planned Parenthood, KC Tenants, Missouri Healthcare for All, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, and Pro-Choice Missouri.
Hitting the streets and gravel roads across Missouri, and taking a paid leave from their other work duties to canvass for five days a week, organizers had over 308 deep conversations of 30 to 45 minutes each over the course of six weeks. They were supported by four coaches and various MOVE Action staff members. By the end of the period, the organizers had developed new skills and the confidence to apply “practice-based evidence” to the ongoing work of shifting voters’ hearts and minds.
Recently, we sat down with two MOVE staff members who provided program, data, and training support to the team of organizers, Kaelyn Seymour (Civic Engagement Data Director) and Julie Terbrock (Campaigns and Alignment Director). We chatted about what lessons they learned from the pilot program, the role curiosity plays in deep canvassing efforts, and how funders can support this type of resource and time intensive work.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity
Megan, Rx: As a behind-the-scenes entity supporting progressive grassroots groups across MO working for a multiracial governing majority…have you noticed a shift among organizations from transactional, more typical political campaign-style mobilization to community organizing with a longer time horizon? If so, what was the impetus for this collective shift?
Julie, MOVE: Folks have always felt a tension between transactional “win some stuff today” mobilization versus the long-term, deep relational work in our communities and with our bases via community organizing. The deep canvassing arc that Missouri Organizing and Voter Engagement Collaborative (MOVE) has been on is working towards combining the two. How do we do that? How do we not just transactionally win something in a moment, and then, frankly, lose it the next day? And, how are we not forgetting to win things because we’re going so deep into relationships with a small set of people? There has definitely been a shift among organizations getting more strategic – coming from both ends of the mobilizing and organizing spectrum – to figure how we can take a both/and approach. There has been a deep sharpening around the strategy for how we get to a multiracial governing majority; and that strategy marries the two approaches.
Kaelyn, MOVE: Organizations are starting to collectively shift. We will still call some people and probably not call them back the next day, but we are making sure to intentionally pull people into our universe and engage people beyond volunteer moments that we have built for them into longer-term and deeper engagements like monthly or quarterly meetings. For example, there was a group working on a local ballot issue on illegal dumping that took a both/and approach. They gathered environmental leaders and organizers together to rally around the issue because it was something immediate that they wanted to do; but they organized their broader community in such a way that kept the same group of folks intact and engaged, and an established collective for the future.
Megan, Rx: In your Power is a Social Determinant of Health session, you mentioned that curiosity was a central means not only to engage with folks door-to-door via deep canvassing over six weeks, but to create a collective engaged in a learning program featuring these transformational conversations. So what did you learn about curiosity, both as a team and as organizers? How do you maintain and feed curiosity in the face of obstacles or fatigue? Why is curiosity a central component of this work?
Kaelyn, MOVE: First, I’ll say, it takes a special type of person to be always curious (laughter). In deep canvassing, even as our people got tired, they were still curious as to why people wouldn’t open the door or didn’t want to vote in federal elections if they had conversations about local elections, or why they knew who their aldermen were but not their state legislators. I think deep canvassing naturally leads to curiosity because you don’t know what is going to come next. You are curious about what is going to happen at any given door because every conversation is so different.
Julie, MOVE: When I think about curiosity, I think about – “do I want to be right, or do I want to have an impact?”. Sometimes it can be both, but that’s lucky. It’s this idea of, “Do I want to prove that my judgment is correct?” – because you can do that with data – “or, do I want to figure out how we can actually change the world?”. That is also the difference between “we’re doing things to people” versus “we’re getting somewhere together” (mobilizing versus organizing). I want to be very clear: if we’re not getting somewhere together, we’re not going to make it there. How do we think about engaging with people and not just extracting something like votes from them, and instead go on a journey together to a place where we both want to go? Finally, to Kaelyn’s point, there are some people who naturally show up consistently curious. I am so grateful to them, and we are lucky to run into them often when organizing. But there are lots of folks who aren’t like that. Naming curiosity as an explicit thing we’re practicing has helped people who don’t innately feel it. If curiosity is our practice and something goes wrong, it becomes “how do I figure out why?”, and we address it together because we have a deep relationship. There’s a whole other world that opens up when we are grounded in curiosity and not assumptions – it makes progress powerful and possible.
Megan, Rx: What did you hear in the door-to-door conversations that surprised you, resonated with you, or alarmed you?
Kaelyn, MOVE: We had two scripts running, one for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and one for conflicted white voters. On the BIPOC side, I was most shocked about the fact that people just don’t tell the truth about whether they vote. Three months later, I’m still shocked and can’t believe people will say “Yes, I’m going to vote” but they don’t (laughter)! I don’t know why that shocked me, but we had to change the question to an assessment of how powerful people perceived their vote to be rather than asking, “are you going to vote?”. How powerful they perceived their vote to be was a stronger indicator of whether they were voters. On the conflicted white voters’ side, the reflections we heard rather than the answers themselves intrigued me. For instance, when we asked about the right to healthcare coverage for undocumented immigrants, many conflicted white voters would say, “Oh, I know this person (an undocumented immigrant). They’re trying really, really hard to get their citizenship; and they work. They deserve to have healthcare because they work and they’re trying hard.” But when we asked about their neighbor or a stranger who is also undocumented, the conflicted white voter would often respond, “Oh no, they don’t work, they don’t do anything, so they don’t deserve it”. It was very interesting to me because in one case, they can see a person working hard and believe they deserve it but the other stranger, who is probably doing just as much work, didn’t deserve it because the conflicted white voter could not see their productivity. The link between productivity and a deservedness has stayed with me from the conflicted white voter conversations.
Julie, MOVE: The results themselves weren’t shocking necessarily but it doesn’t make them any less alarming or surprising. The thing that resonated for me was the fact that folks just desperately want someone to listen to them. It’s not surprising either, but it’s counter to how we think about making change so often. I think a lot of organizing over the past decade has shifted the narrative of what it takes to win – win in every version of the word, not just a campaign – but this idea that folks simply want to be heard and their thoughts incorporated into something larger, that’s a core element of organizing. It’s not about the best message. It’s so much more time consuming and resource-rich to listen to folks. There is no magic wand. I’m also consistently inspired by and appreciative of folks that are leaning into this work, and what’s possible when they do. Organizers lean into such hard things, and these conversations hit them in their guts not just their brains – that’s the other piece. What does it take to support folks doing this work in real ways? It’s a constant interrogation of who you are as a person, who you are in your community, who you are with your people; that is the whole other layer to this work that we’re still wrestling with. How do we support folks digging into this, so they don’t get crushed?
Megan, Rx: What would you like funders to know about supporting deep canvassing work?
Kaelyn, MOVE: It’s not cheap. It won’t be a churn and burn. Impact is not going to happen in 18 months. It’s a long game. It’s one neighborhood, one strategic thing at a time that builds up. It will not be the impact numbers that you’re used to seeing with something like voter registration. It’s going to be small incremental things that lead to change – like having 1,000 conversations with unregistered voters – and that might cost the same. But it will be more impactful in the end.
Julie, MOVE: Fund multi-years and fund infrastructure to do this work, like data analyses for deep canvassing. Invest in trust with the organizers doing the work. Listen to organizers. Set up grant mechanisms to learn from the work rather than prove you are right – be curious.
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