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Learning from voters: RE Sources Takes to the Streets with Whatcom Votes! 2017

posted Dec 6, 2017, 3:34 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Dec 6, 2017, 3:39 PM ]
by Krista Rome, Clean Water Organizer

One of the most important things I learned this past election is this: the best way to truly learn from (and about) the general public is to get out there and have conversations with strangers.

I believe the major problems facing Whatcom County, the community I have called my own since birth, can only be solved when we face them head-on, together, and with respect and awareness of the differing viewpoints our friends and neighbors hold dear. The loudest voices in the community don’t always represent the majority opinion.

Building Community, One Door at a Time

When you listen respectfully to another person’s opinion, and refrain from invalidating it, you build trust.

Fortunately, I got to spend the first four months of my job doing just that — executing RE Sources’ voter outreach campaign, Whatcom Votes!. Staff and a slew of amazing volunteers hit the streets day after day, knocking on doors all over the County to increase voter turnout by connecting local environmental issues to the importance of voting in local elections. And of course, reminders about voter registration and ballot due dates.

We talked about proposed fossil fuel pipelines that would bisect our county. We talked about the crude oil export moratorium at Cherry Point. We talked about the pollution of our drinking water source in Bellingham — Lake Whatcom — and how to approach funding pollution prevention equitably. 

Halloween doorbelling!
Considering our unexpected intrusion into their daily life, people were surprisingly engaged, and grateful for us taking the time to talk to the community. Naturally, some were busy or refused to talk, but most people softened once we assured them we weren’t there to promote politicians or a political party. The majority were simply not aware of the details surrounding the issues.

We made an important discovery in Ferndale and Blaine — neighborhoods with a lot of refinery workers, their friends, and families. “Save Cherry Point Jobs” signs sat in dozens of yards. But very few people we spoke with knew the details about the signs or the moratorium. After chatting, many of these residents agreed that it’s not a “jobs versus environment” issue. It taught me that clearly communicating our messages to the general public is far more important than expending energy countering a tiny, very vocal opposition.

I ran into marginalized people of all types, who politely chatted with me even though they’re surely facing other, more pressing hardships. I utilized my rusty Spanish talking about drinking water pollution with a farmworker community. We ran into a woman who thought she would never be able to vote again with a felony on her record. She was delighted and grateful when we informed her that Washington State restores voting rights after one’s sentence is served, saving one more willing, enthusiastic voter from falling through the cracks! 

We also dipped our toes into the world of “deep canvassing”, a method of talking about the issues that encourages the voter to reflect upon and share their opinions. The power of deep canvassing is beautifully summarized by Dave Fleischer, the Project Director at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership LAB: 

“The key to changing people’s minds is to be curious about what other people think. Think back to the last time you changed your mind about something important. It likely wasn’t because someone berated you. The biggest gift you can give someone whose mind you want to change is a supportive environment that lets them think about their experiences and how those experiences affect their opinions on issues. We’re just beginning to learn how to do this well, but it’s important. And the data shows it works.” 

The Numbers and the Lessons

To put our efforts in context, take a look at the numbers.

We knocked on doors of over 10,000 infrequent voters, called nearly 10,000 more, and had 2,066 one-on-one conversations at the door and a similar amount by phone. Our 40 amazing volunteers and interns were essential to making these connections. And there was a dizzying amount of complementary work from our Communications staff to help increase voter turnout — from targeted Facebook posts and emails to mailing voter registration postcards to every rental address in town without a registered voter…

But the lessons are more important than the numbers. 

A huge percentage of those we spoke to were grateful for the education we provided on the issues, and for the opportunity to share their thoughts with us. We need to continue this type of outreach. I believe it’s the best, most honest, and most humble way for those of us in the environmental community to proceed. It takes time, but when our strategies are rooted in community input, we can be more confident in the work we do and the approaches we take. 

In the Peace Corps, before they sent us out into the deep African Bush, they instructed us:

“Spend the first 3-6 months just listening, learning, and asking questions. Learn what the community wants and needs before deciding upon your approach. Do not go into the village thinking you have the answers. Look for ways to apply your skills to the challenges they want to address.”