Deep canvassing can connect rural white voters to issues of racial justice to build a multiracial coalition we need.
Jacqueline Luqman: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. An organizing experiment that was conducted among white working-class voters in rural Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania by a national network of 40 state and local progressive and left-leaning grassroots power-building organizations has shown some pretty impressive results. And not just engaging voters for the upcoming election, but in shifting the attitudes of some people in those communities about issues like immigration and racism. Rather than door knocking with a clipboard and a candidate platform spiel, the deep canvassing experiment was different. Here to talk about the experiment, the outcome, and the implications, not just in the next election, but in grassroots organizing and beyond is Mehrdad Azemun senior strategist for People’s Action. Mehrdad has been organizing for 20 years and his roots are in the immigration rights movement and in community organizing and he’s an immigrant from Iran. Mehrdad, thank you so much for joining us.
Mehrdad Azemun: Thank you so much for being here and your important work. Very, very much appreciate what your network does. Thank you for having us.
Jacqueline Luqman: People’s Actions started having conversations about the need for a more robust role in small town organizing. That was from the inception of these conversations, race, conscious and would work in majority white areas where people were struggling economically. So instead of talking about politicians and policies and who people were voting for, your organization focused on issues. But what were those starting points, those issues for those conversations with people in these communities, if candidates and policy platforms weren’t the beginning of the conversation?
Mehrdad Azemun: We started with was a massive listening campaign in 2017 and 2018, in which we knocked on tens of thousands of doors and in a bunch of different rural communities around the country. What we found in those conversations was really interesting in that there was a real battle for meaning among people in these communities. We asked people what were the issues that were happening in their communities? What did they care about? There were a couple of very interesting reactions that happened. One, the overriding reaction was, well, no one’s actually ever knocked on my door and asked me what I care about. So much so that the organization that we work with in North Carolina, Down Home North Carolina, they actually titled their report that followed up on those conversations. They titled it, no one’s ever asked me before.
The other thing that happened is that people in rural communities really felt a lack of all kinds of things, lack of jobs, lack of healthcare, lack of basic resources in their own communities. So much so that we did an analysis of the words that people use in these conversations. And that four-letter word lack was by far the biggest one. The people that they blamed for that lack of whatever it might be, there was a real struggle in people’s minds around who was really the culprit. A lot of people did tend to blame immigrants. It was immigrants and people of color and we saw that there was a real danger there. Of course.
The other thing at the same time was that more often people blamed the 1% big corporations and their ability to buy our government as another major culprit. And in people’s minds, there was a real struggle for who that real enemy was. We decided to try to investigate that and try to complicate that in fact, by following up and having a more focused research project. That really tried to figure out how is it that we can essentially widen the circle of humanity in this era, in which we’re having so many conversations about race, so many conversations about the perceived other. So many conversations about immigrants, ourselves, undocumented, documented all immigrants. And decided to go back into these communities in three different states, and really have honest conversations, deep conversations with people about how they thought about immigrants. In particular, try to have conversations at the intersection of two major issues of our time, immigration and healthcare that led us to the experiment that we ran last fall.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow. Now it really sounds like you sort of accidentally stumbled on what we know is the Republicans and definitely the Trump administration using racism strategically in these areas. It sounds like you kind of stumbled on the result of them doing that. Fear-mongering about immigration and these kinds of issues. Whether people agree that this is true, or and there will definitely be some who will see this and say, “Well, that’s not true.” But dissenting opinions aside, a lot of this work has involved beating white supremacists and reactionary politicians to these people, to these voters, to circumvent that narrative in these areas. So a couple of questions arise for me when I think about that. One of them is, who are the best people to engage in these conversations with these voters? Because there’s a lot of discussion Mehrdad about how it’s the responsibility of white people to educate and struggle with white people in dismantling their racist ideology, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. But did you find that to be true in this experiment?
Mehrdad Azemun: It’s a very interesting finding from our experiment, from the work that we’ve done on doors and to the question of whose role is it to be having this conversation. Our answer is it’s everyone’s role. I completely understand the extra burden that can be placed on people of color to explain ourselves. I experienced that as an immigrant from Iran. But when it comes to the actual experiment, we had canvassers, we had people who were working inside the three different states, and we had folks who were born here. We had people who were not. We had people who were white. We had people who were people of color and we measured, okay, what’s the effectiveness of a white canvasser who is born here. How much can they break through to a specific voter versus someone who’s a person of color versus someone who is an immigrant?
What we found was that at least for this experiment, we found that it actually didn’t matter that whether it was a native born white person from that state. Whether it was someone who was born in Venezuela and Mexico, came from the continent of Africa. It actually really didn’t matter, what mattered was people connecting around story, around values, not around facts and in particular sharing lived experience, especially even including if a person was not an immigrant. It really mattered to just share the story of an immigrant that they knew. And what that opened up was the person on the other end of the conversation, them sharing, “Oh, actually I do know an immigrant and maybe they’re undocumented. Maybe they’re not, I’m not really sure. Here’s a little bit about their experience.” And suddenly the circle of humanity was widened. It’s a pretty amazing breakthrough at least that we saw.
And what it also opens up is that in terms of this struggle for racial justice, that is the struggle of our time. Everyone has a role. It’s a beautiful thing about movements is everyone can have a role to play. And just referring back to something that you talked about, what we see over and over again is organized white supremacy is on the march in community, after community. And at least in the places that we were door knocking, organizers said to us over and over again. Again, there’s a real struggle for meaning in these communities and whoever is on the front porch of these communities they’re the ones who win.
If we leave this, if we leave those communities, if we say, “No, that’s such a red county, that’s such a red state.” We’ll never be able to break through. We can’t win politically. Then we leave all of that territory. We leave all of those ideas and that struggle for meaning to the right and to the white supremacists. And we may as well be waving the flag of defeat in community after community. What we’ve demonstrated is if we get in there, we have a race conscious conversation that’s about building a multiracial movement that fuses race and class. We demonstrate over and over again, that we can win.
Jacqueline Luqman: That is profound to me, I think, because that leads me to my next question. Because we do so often and by we, I mean those of us on the left and I’m definitely not shy in admitting that there are some weaknesses on the left. I think one of the weaknesses that we do tend to have, that we’re not as careful in reigning in, is our view of rural voters. Where we see people who live in red areas, red states, as not worth the time and effort because they’re whatever a disparaging name we can think of to call them. They’re backwoods, hicks, they’re unintelligent, they’re unsophisticated, whatever. But so many organizations were involved in this project and I’m assuming that those organizations members come from cities, as well as maybe some rural organizations. Did they have to change their orientation, their attitude toward rural voters, as opposed to the kinds of voters they regularly engaged in for them to be able to connect with the people they canvassed?
Mehrdad Azemun: The organizations that we were working with are rooted in those communities. So they really understood how to engage their own base, the people in those communities the best. But to pick up on your question, yes, we make… I myself make a lot of assumptions. I have only lived in big cities, big and midsize cities in this country as an immigrant. So I to make assumptions and the thing that we’re really trying to get to as People’s Action is a big, big progressive electorate. And getting over our own assumptions. I, as an immigrant and I had questions my own skepticism as I drove into these communities. And what I found over and over again was among the people that we were talking to, who were by nature, they were conflicted.
They were conflicted about immigrants, about immigration. The thing that they just really were hungering for was a conversation. We talked beyond parties, we talked beyond partisanship. And over and over again, the thing that I was really surprised by was that even if the conversation did not end up moving them, maybe they didn’t necessarily move in our direction, voter after voter almost to a single person thanked me. Because it was a nonjudgmental conversation that just protected some space where they could contend with all of this jumble and mess of ideas in their minds. Where they had lived experiences, where they had known an immigrant, worked with an immigrant. There was an immigrant who’s there in law, an extended relative, and had had of course, incredibly positive interactions with person after person.
But then they’re met with this barrage of racism and white supremacy, whether it’s coded, whether it’s outright over and over again in the airwaves on social media. So helping them process that jumble of idea, they were thankful that someone could come to them, approach them in a nonjudgmental way and say, “Well, you said this, but you also said this, how do you contend with that?” And voter after voter just thanked me specifically for just saying like, “I needed this. I needed to process this with someone and actually unpack some of the racism that I’ve ingested. I just need some time to process it and hopefully land in a better space.”
Jacqueline Luqman: That is really, really fascinating. And it sounds to me like these kinds of nonjudgmental open conversations based on shared experiences is the perfect foundation, the perfect environment to have a conversation that centers on the race class narrative. That’s actually what the conversation device is called. And as its name implies, it’s a central focus of these deep canvassing discussions. It insists on addressing both race and class at the same time.
Now, there is another discussion going on in a left circles right now. That’s been going on for quite some time. I’ve been involved in many, about whether we should be focusing on class as a major issue in the fight for more progressive leftist policies in politics, or whether we should be focusing on race, if that is the predominant issue that we should be focusing on. But the race, class narrative seems to imply that it’s both, that you have to talk about both in this discussion. So what does that mean? Is that accurate? And what does that mean when you are talking to voters or potential voters about these issues, their experiences, and policy. Can you talk about race without talking about class with people and get them to do this confronting of their conflicting thoughts on these issues?
Mehrdad Azemun: Excellent question first, let’s just name it, the right names, race all the time, all the time, whether it’s implicit or explicit, they use race all the time. We as progressives often respond by running from it. We say, “Well, we’re color blind. Don’t bring up race, that’s divisive.” We’ve seen over and over again, that that is a path to defeat because the other side will name it over and over and over again. We’ll play to things like white nativism, white consciousness in order to win election after election and issue after issue. It’s been part of their playbook for decades.
In this debate about race and class. Is it all about race? Is it all about class? Our answer and our experience is yes. I think it needs to be said. Is that the story of America, the story of the United States? I think you can say the story of America is a story of race. I think that needs to be said in terms of just understanding that the history and the story of our country. What our experience, both my experience on the doors, and the experience from the experiment demonstrates that if you can tell a story that demonstrates that it really is about both. That’s the beauty of the race class narrative is that it’s been able to weave together race and class. I think you need to demonstrate that.
I think it’s also about demonstrating how racism has been used strategically by specific forces, specifically inside the right inside this country to divide people based on race and in order to actually consolidate their power. So I think if you can… What I’ve experienced is that you confuse both of those things, race and class, but also demonstrate to people, especially white people that racism doesn’t just happen. It’s not an accident, but that has been used strategically as a tool to water down power for specific groups can consolidate power for the right. What I experienced over and over again is that that can actually breakthrough shows a great deal of promise.
Jacqueline Luqman: That is fascinating. So Mehrdad I’m wondering, what’s been the outcome of these efforts because they sound very much like organizing to me. They sound like political education a little bit to me, but I’m wondering how they have been successful? Have these efforts been successful? What has your experiment produced? Have you been able to measure successes or changes in perspectives throughout the experiment? What’s happened?
Mehrdad Azemun: The research, and also our experience on the doors demonstrates that we had amazing success in this experiment. We partnered with esteemed researchers from Yale University and University of California Berkeley to work closely with us because we really wanted to see does this actually work? If you had a 15 minute conversation with someone about immigration, about health care, and then they went back after that conversation to social media or right wing radio or Fox News. Or whatever media they’re taking in, what would actually happen? We’re very, very excited and validated to see that for every 100 people that we talk to about this question of, would you be okay with including undocumented immigrants in a universal healthcare plan, say like Medicare for all. Out of every 100 people that we would talk to, eight of them would actually come over to support a position actually being in favor of the undocumented being included in a university healthcare program.
And again, take into account we’re talking about, again, perceived very, very red areas or purple areas in North Carolina, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania in rural areas in small towns. So it’s a pretty mind blowing effect that we saw while we also demonstrated was that we could go back to those same people about four and a half months later. After they’ve had this 15 minute conversation and then gone back and watched whatever taken in whatever social media and other media that they’re taking in. And those results would hold.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow.
Mehrdad Azemun: Means that it had a really, really durable and lasting impact. So we’re very excited about the kind of methodology that we use. And also, again, the narrative that we were trying to tell with people, and we want to apply it to the election. So we’re having similar conversations in a bunch of swing states going into the fall election and are excited. In fact have built an army of people who are having these kinds of similar conversations in some cases with their neighbors, in some cases with people just one state away, a few states away as we try to again, battle for meaning in this election. And of course try to break through to victory.
Jacqueline Luqman: I’m so glad you just said that, that we are trying to battle or that you and your organization are trying to battle for meaning in this election and breakthrough to victory. Because I want you to end with telling people how they can contact you if they want to learn how they can participate in this, but not just in terms of the upcoming election. But also if they’re wondering if they can use this method, these tools, this tactic, to build this multicultural, multiracial coalition that is so desperately needed at this time of crisis and uprising in this country. How can people connect with your organization to get plugged in, to do this?
Mehrdad Azemun: So happy you asked that we are building 1,000 strong following across this country of people who want to have a deep and meaningful conversations in the places that really matter and welcome people to volunteer. It can be as simple as doing it from your home, from your own smartphone, from your own old school phone, from your laptop, whatever state it’s in. We would love to have you as part of this effort. There is a deep, deep hunger because of the pandemic, because of the murder of George Floyd and so many other people of color by the hands of police. It’s a very, very uncertain time. The tools of the canvassing are made for these kinds of times, for times of crises. There is a hunger…
We’re running, for example, massive text banks and people running social media ads. Those are great things to do. But what we know is that there is a real hunger from people to just make meaning and to connect with people, build community. And the answer to your question is yes, and people can send an email. You can go to peoplesaction.org. If you want to just learn more information about who we are and what we’ve done. You can also just send an email to a couple of different places. One is just email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s a different email that folks can send to it’s just email@example.com. Again, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to sign up and get more involved and learn about what we’re doing state to state.
Jacqueline Luqman: Mehrdad throughout this conversation, I could not help but think about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party and the organizing meetings they held with the Young Lords, the Young Patriots and poor white people from the inner city of Chicago. I just feel like this is an extension of those organizing and political education efforts. So I truly appreciate the effort that went into this experiment and that it will continue. I’m very excited to see what the results are. So I really appreciate you coming on and having this conversation with me about it.
Mehrdad Azemun: Thank you so much for having me. Again, just want to appreciate back the amazing work your network does very, very much appreciate our time together, Jackie.
Jacqueline Luqman: Oh, absolutely. So do I. I really appreciate you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Washington DC.