While Food & Water Watch organizers are out in the field and garnering spotlights in the media, there’s another force working behind the scenes to support their vital work. The Food & Water Watch canvass is an integral part of our grassroots organizing strategy, but they often fall under the radar.
So let’s get to know them.
What is the Food & Water Watch Canvass
The Food & Water Watch canvass includes anywhere between 5 and 35 members at any given time. The canvass group is housed in our D.C. office and spends every day between 4pm and 9pm out in the field talking to people just like you. They support all of our work, from national campaigns like our battle to stop Trump’s infrastructure budget scam, to our local and state campaigns such as the fight to ban fracking in Maryland. While they do fundraise and identify key donors, their main focus is to engage the general public on our issues. Each and every one of them has to be fully versed in the political nuances of all of our campaigns, issues, and strategies. Each canvasser is rigorously trained on communication skills, has unmatchable energy and enthusiasm, and possesses the ability to condense complicated insights into 30 second pitches. Canvassing is hard work. You’re outside for most of the day, it’s physically demanding, and sometimes you have to deal with resentful and angry people. Yet, if you talk to any of our canvassers: they love the job.
Stephanie Lewis, our current canvass director, admits that at first she was intimidated by the idea of approaching strangers. But, she also said, “eventually you just fall in love with it.” Tyler Van Kirk, our National Canvass Coordinator, and Alex Beauchamp, our Northeast Region Director who started his career in activism as a canvasser, all echo her sentiment: canvassing is an amazing and unique opportunity to make an impact at the hyper local level.
Next, Case Study: New Jersey
The Food & Water Watch canvass was born in New Jersey when an eminent need to establish a concerted effort against fracking in the state was identified. At the time, fracking was still an unknown issue that very few people had extensive knowledge about. The canvass is, and was, the perfect tool for raising awareness and mobilizing a movement of local supporters. Our New Jersey canvass spent hours and hours going door-to-door to teach people about fracking until eventually it became a top level issue. After the canvass was in full operation for two years, fracking was not only a topline issue in New Jersey, but Food & Water Watch had become a key player in New Jersey politics. It became clear that the canvass is effective to its core: talking to people in person is a tried-and-true method for building awareness.
Each and every one of our canvassers are now trained in effective communication. Our canvassers are adept conversationalists who have been taught to balance good body language, energy levels, and making hard asks. They will go from simply introducing a stranger to a new set of issues, to prompting petitions, to getting donations, and even to identifying new folks to volunteer. These aren’t easy tasks, but our canvassers are out in the field every week day getting them done.
Fracking has not been banned in New Jersey yet, but a fracking ban bill was drafted in a state where environmental issues had always been pushed to the side. Our canvass allows us to get our message out there, person by person, on a level that media coverage cannot guarantee. As our previous canvass director Tyler Van Kirk said, “the canvass is able to give everyday people a real sense of what their role is in a movement and how important it is.”
Case Study #2: Maryland
After the role of the canvass was well established from our work in New Jersey, Food & Water Watch decided to utilize the resource in other parts of the country. Recently, a fight to ban fracking in Maryland gained momentum so we quickly built up an army of canvassers in our Baltimore office and got out on the streets to bolster our anti-fracking campaign. This time, the utility of the canvass was even more tangible. We were able to drive tens of thousands of phone calls and letters into the offices of our targeted elected officials. By the end of the campaign, elected officials were asking actually asking us to stop calling them. Of course, we refused until a ban on fracking was passed.
Take a look at this historical moment when Senator J.B. Jennings, a Republican Senator in Maryland, took the time to stream a Facebook Live video with on update on the fracking ban special order. He explains why they hadn’t passed the bill yet and walked us through their plans for passing the ban. This was all due to being, “inundated with calls on the fracking ban.” He recognized that “the fracking is very important to many people” and that is almost entirely thanks to the canvass drilling his, and other targeted officials’, offices with calls.
One of our other primary targets at the time, Senator Joan Carter Conway, was quoted in a story about HBCUs saying, “You need to be calling Budget and Tax every day like they call me about fracking...You gotta’ call and call and call and call.” The point is: the canvass has an immense political capacity to influence our local campaigns.
More On Food & Water Watch Canvass Strategy
It’s clear the Food & Water Watch canvass is effective, but what is the secret to our success? The communications trainings are key, but also important is the focus on reaching out to everyone in the community, regardless of socioeconomic status. We believe in giving everyone accurate information, keeping them up to date on their local and national politics, and giving them the opportunity to invest in something they care about. Our canvass works to empower individual and affected persons at the very local level. And it makes a difference.
When we asked Stephanie, Tyler, and Alex to share stories about their time working or directing the canvass, each of them noted that knocking on strangers doors year after year is actually a great way to make personal connections. They each mentioned how they would knock on somebody’s door and talk about water infrastructure or factory farms and have a memorable conversation. Fast forward a year and they would find themselves back at the same door, maybe talking about Trump’s budget plan now, but it would feel like returning to an old friend’s house. Both the resident, and the canvasser, remember their experience together and they’re able to pick up their conversation where they left off. Those are the building blocks of a movement. When you create a relationship with someone who has never previously been involved in our issues, you’re also motivating them to get involved.
At it’s heart, the Food & Water Watch canvass is a way to bypass bipartisan gridlock and engage all people. We build massive lists of volunteers and supporters while simultaneously raising awareness on the local level, and we engage people that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged.