A white voter in her 70s insisted to canvassers she had nothing against Black people, “but all of that rioting going on in Minnesota was just plain wrong.”
In the middle of a conversation about enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic, one Latinx voter told canvassers that African Americans “sit around, collect unemployment, buy fancy cars, and sell drugs.”
Hearing racist stereotypes from voters doesn’t surprise 59-year-old mother of three Bonnie Dobson, resident of Alamance County, North Carolina, and a lead organizer with the nonpartisan grassroots group Down Home North Carolina. Dobson’s work has been largely handled over the phone during the pandemic, and the people she speaks to are typically unable to discern that she is African American herself, which has given her an inconspicuous view into, and an overt sense of, voters’ racism. She says she doesn’t let the “outright racism” anger or deter her.
“I don’t let it bother me because everybody brings their own trauma, experiences, their view on the world to what they say—it influences every piece of you. When people say things I find offensive, I try to remember that they are coming from either a place of ignorance or maybe it’s their age,” Dobson said. “I try to respond in a way that helps me understand where they are coming from.”
As the Deep Canvass Manager for Down Home, Dobson leads a team of organizers targeting rural voters with both deep canvassing, a strategy based on active listening and asking non-judgemental questions, and race-class narrative, a strategy that centers the power dynamics of race and class in those conversations.
“I really believe… if we can start changing hearts and minds, we can change a whole lot of things in this country,” Dobson told The Real News.
To challenge people’s racist views and prejudices while building support for progressive causes, Dobson uses battle-tested organizing tactics to forge authentic, human connection. Such tactics are part of Down Home’s efforts to build a multi-racial, working-class coalition in order to shift the balance of power in deep-red North Carolina.
Because the goal of deep canvassing and race-class narrative is to make a lasting impact through an earned connection with a subject, it requires far more resources—including time. The conversations can last from 10-20 minutes, and conducting these kinds of conversations effectively requires more training than traditional canvassing requires. Traditional canvassing aims to boost turnout by targeting voters affiliated with a certain issue or party, and by knocking on as many doors as possible, presenting facts and information to encourage them to vote. There’s increasing evidence that door-knocking alone is not an effective strategy.
Dobson believes Down Home’s strategies are far more effective than traditional canvassing in rural North Carolina, where many have deep hostility to opposing political parties and an aversion to discussing politics with strangers.
“For the most part, working-class folks and rural folks are not ever asked [to share their views on politics and social problems]… no one’s asked, no one’s canvassed, no one reaches those folks,” she said. “We’re so divided and we’re so entrenched in our political parties. When we start going out there talking to people about issues, and we don’t mention a party, with the exception of some outliers…. we all pretty much want the same thing.”
Down Home expects to deploy six full-time staff deep canvassers and a team of volunteers as they expand their reach statewide ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It is part of a push by the national advocacy group People’s Action to target voters in key swing states to increase support for progressive causes and candidates. Down Home also hopes to help flip North Carolina’s US Senate race in a state Republicans narrowly carried in 2020.
A few months before Dobson started working for Down Home in 2019, one of the organization’s deep canvassers spoke to her at her home. Instead of approaching the conversation like a traditional political canvass, the deep canvasser gauged Dobson’s feelings about expanding healthcare coverage to undocumented immigrants, then shared personal anecdotes. Then, the deep canvasser asked Dobson to do the same.
For Dobson, the canvasser didn’t speak like she was part of a political campaign, which cut through some of the cultural norms that discourage people from discussing politics with strangers.
“I did not connect it necessarily to politics, which made it so interesting and memorable. Because, typically, if you asked me about my politics, unless I know yours, I’m not going to be completely comfortable sharing. Not here in the South anyway,” Dobson said.
The pandemic forced many campaigns to abandon door knocking and instead use phones to reach potential voters. Dobson says the loss of physical interaction can limit a canvasser’s effectiveness.
“You can see the person’s expressions and gestures, how they are reacting, and nuances that are not visible by phone. In addition, when you are on the doors, you can gauge more how a person lives, demographics—for example, race, age, et cetera, are not always available to you on a phone canvass,” Dobson said.
Because of her team’s success, Dobson says they will continue to use phones for the 2022 campaign, regardless of the pandemic. Down Home will conduct traditional canvasses door-to-door.
Not everyone can be swayed by deep canvassing, Dobson admitted. Alamance County has backed Republicans in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter. Last July, hundreds rallied in defense of Confederate statues in Graham, just miles from Dobson’s home. In 2020, the area made national headlines after military-clad sheriff’s deputies pepper sprayed a crowd of 200 racial justice demonstrators marching for voting rights.
“You can talk to White rural voters who watch Fox, [but] you’re not going to convert them,” Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and sociologist told Yes! Magazine. “You’re not going to overcome the racial divide very easily.”
Dobson disagrees: “We can’t focus on what divides us. What we need to be focusing on is what unites us,” she explained.
Acknowledging that theirs is a long-term, “generational” fight, Down Home argues they have already begun to make inroads with voters since their organization launched in the wake of the 2016 election.
A phone survey of 220 people conducted by Down Home in September and October of 2021 showed that 60% of their calls ended with increased support of government stimulus during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 68% of the calls ended with high levels of support for the stimulus. Another phone survey of 785 people conducted between November 2021 and January 2022 showed that 82% of Down Home’s calls ended with high levels of support for the government’s role in helping America’s recovery from the pandemic.
The group participated in a study that found deep canvassing had a 100-times deeper and longer-lasting impact than traditional canvassing in nine swing states, including North Carolina, leading up to the 2020 election. Studies have found that both deep canvassing and race-class narrative can lead to significant shifts in perceptions and attitudes.
Only two out of six of Down Home’s endorsed candidates won at the ballot box in 2020, but Down Home helped 31-year-old Ricky Hurtado (D-63) defeat incumbent Republican Stephen Ross by fewer than 500 votes to become North Carolina’s only Latinx state representative.
“We know focusing on local elections pays off,” said Dreama Caldwell, a Down Home co-director.
Caldwell was inspired to join Down Home after being incarcerated in 2015. She was held on $40,000 bail for the actions of an employee she managed at a childcare center after they left a child on a school bus for several hours. Caldwell was charged with a felony and lost her job. Navigating this experience opened her eyes to the injustices of the criminal justice system in Alamance County. She says her co-defendants were released without bail simply because they were arrested in different counties.
Soon after joining Down Home, Caldwell began organizing around bail reform. She quickly realized how underrepresented her interests were in local government.
“I started attending County Commissioner meetings, and immediately I realized nobody looked like me. And nobody lives like me, there was no working class representation on the board,” she said.
One challenge Caldwell faced was the paltry support she received from the Democratic Party, even though she ran as a Democrat.
“I was actually told not to run because I’m a formerly incarcerated person. And they were worried that that would blemish their other candidates,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell fell short of her goal to become the first Black woman elected to be Alamance county commissioner in 2020, but still saw voter engagement in her community increase.
“I did not win but I got 34,000 votes on my first run,” she said. “In that cycle, we increased Black voter turnout by 42%, which was more than what the state’s percentage was.”
Organizers face other systemic obstacles to making change. Donald Trump narrowly beat Joe Biden 49.9% to 48.6% in North Carolina in 2020. The next year, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed new political maps that gave Republicans control of 10 of 14 House seats, securing a seemingly unbreakable supermajority in the state legislature. The State Supreme Court ruled the maps unconstitutional, but with legislation aimed at ending gerrymandering and voter suppression stalled in the US Senate, it’s unlikely such practices will end anytime soon.
With change unlikely on a statewide level, Down Home is focusing on local races and trying to win over rural voters, who Dobson says are often receptive to hearing alternative points of view.
For decades, conservatives have weaponized racial resentment to foster opposition to social programs. Compared to other wealthy countries, the United States has extremely high levels of poverty and economic inequality, and a lack of access to healthcare, due to a lack of government investment in a social safety net.
Dobson says the majority of residents she speaks to want the government to tackle these issues. Race-class narrative provides a way to debunk misinformation and identify who stands in the way of improving social conditions in North Carolina. Most residents want the same things, Dobson explained. “[An] opportunity to create a good life for ourselves and our family, healthcare, a safe place to live. We can all agree on that, and that’s how we’re going to win.”
Dobson used race-class narrative to push back against the racist statements she encountered from “Linda” and the Latinx man.
“I explained to [Linda] that I considered those protests and not riots and people are tired of the racism in America, and that’s a good thing, because it’s held a lot of people back. And she agreed with all that,” she said.
Dobson told the Latinx man who shared the racist trope about African Americans exploiting unemployment that “folks on the right are trying to make Black and Brown people point fingers at one another for the [economic] problems that we’re having… so that we can’t come together as a group, and organize and build power because we’re fighting, and that’s the way they like it.”
Dobson doesn’t delve into statistics while on calls, but also noted that the majority of people on social programs are rural whites, not people of color.
“And by the end of the conversation he said, ‘You know, you gave me a lot to think about, I never really thought about it. I just kind of watched the news and that’s what they’re saying,’” Dobson said. “That’s why I believe in deep canvassing. I have so many conversations like that.”
This article is part of a series made possible with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.