By Hilary Morefield
The spring sun shone brightly through the windows of Shawna’s car as we stepped out into the end of 37th Street in Normal Heights. Today was the canvassing session of the Institute, where the fellows would get the opportunity to get to have face-to-face contact with community members about a particular issue. I quietly trailed SDLA Fellows Luis Osuna and Shawna Held as they made their way down the block, trying to make sense of the address list in hand.
In this particular section of Normal Heights, traffic fills the streets due to the number of freeways intersecting and surrounding the neighborhood in all directions, yet few of the area’s residents actually drive. Finding means of clean, alternative transportation for the community members is a big environmental justice policy interest. Our canvas would be surveying community members about their preferred means and changes to transportation and informing them of upcoming community meetings regarding the issue.
At the start of the day, the experience in the room seemed to be a half-and-half split between experienced canvassing vets and complete newcomers. Our small team was no different. Luis felt fairly confident, as he had had some experience in canvassing for campaigns he was passionate about. Shawna and I, first timers to the experience altogether, felt some initial nerves as we approached our first house.
Luis started us off with slightly less scripted approach, giving us a more sample of what we might say and would work off-paper. Shawna took on the next conversation and delved right in without hesitation, picking it up like a natural. We progressed down the list one by one, feeling out the best ways in which to approach people. Our group spoke to a number of folks: a young woman sweeping her sidewalk, a family of three playing loud music in their yard, a man and his burly dog, and an older gentleman enjoying his front porch. There were a number of dead houses and some confusion getting around the space, but we were able to get a handful of meaningful contacts in during the short time-frame.
When we returned to AFSCME Local 127 to meet up with the other fellows, the sentiments seemed to be all across the board. Nate and Sarah Saez seemed to luck out from the get go, and saying their first house was “a big hit”. They were invited inside by an active community member well versed and engaged with the issue at hand. Some of the best conversations seemed to come from families and those with children, who shared their concerns regarding the asthma rights of kids in the neighborhood.
Other of the fellows weren’t always as lucky in getting engaged conversations. Amanda Solomon Amorao expressed her disappointed with the number of dead houses and locked doors her team encountered. A number of groups felt challenged by certain obstacles at the front of the homes(dogs, gates, etc) that made them feel unapproachable. The biggest challenge for the group seemed to be personal hesitation of invading the privacy of the community members.
Despite the challenges, the fellows were able to pull a great deal out of the experience, and for the half of the room that felt initially nervous, all went better than expected.