Kimberly Richards really loves her grandmother. She was reminded how much when she saw her at church recently and leaned in for a hug. “I made you a juice,” her grandma whispered, kissing her on the cheek, drawing back with a grin.
Richards envisioned this “sassy, hilarious” matriarch lovingly selecting mangoes, melons, and other ripe fruits at the market, grinding them up at home, blending their nectars into the delectable juice that makes Richards salivate. Her grandmother’s hands ache with age, so preparing the concoction is no small task. But her grandmother relishes it, anticipating Richards’ delight.
“I pictured her thinking about me — she’s so caring and sweet,” says Richards, her eyes soft at the memory. “I just love her so much.”
It’s a frigid, blustery Sunday, and Richards is sharing this story with those she meets while canvassing registered voters in the lower Northeast. Again and again, after an initial conversation at the door, Richards talks about her grandmother — the juice, the painful hands, the love.
“Deep canvassing” entails connecting face-to-face with disengaged voters by sharing tales from the heart. …From there, the voter may be more open to hearing what a canvasser has to say — and perhaps heartened enough to get to the polls on Election Day.
She finishes her story by saying, “For me, voting is political, but it’s also personal. I think of my grandmother when I vote.” Then, she asks, “What about you? Who do you love?”
And, wonder of wonders, these men and women often respond with stories of their own. Eventually, they muse together about how much better the world would be if people in elected office were to act with the virtuous values their own loved ones do.
These interchanges are both the strangest and loveliest form of voter canvassing I’ve ever seen. But they’re just the latest in a growing effort to get polarized, dejected Americans talking to each other again — with curious compassion, instead of withering contempt — about difficult topics or tough feelings.
Not just regarding politics. Regarding everything.
I’m shadowing Richards today because I’m obsessed with storytelling and listening, and with how the nonprofit she works for — Changing The Conversation Together (CTC) — is using both to help build “a more inclusive and compassionate democracy.”
The practice, called “deep canvassing,” entails connecting face-to-face with disengaged voters by sharing tales from the heart. Doing so sort of fast-tracks participants’ feelings of emotional connection to each other. From there, the voter may be more open to hearing what a canvasser has to say — and perhaps heartened enough to get to the polls on Election Day.
Research shows that, in 2020, the voter turnout rate among people CTC deep-canvassed — most of whom rarely voted before — was 80 percent. That’s 14 points higher than the record-breaking 66 percent turnout nationwide. In Pennsylvania, voter turnout among non-canvassed voters grew 11 percent from 2016 to 2020. For deep-canvassed voters, though, it more than doubled — to 24 percent.
Those are some eye-popping stats. And that’s why The Citizen is partnering with CTC on a get out the vote campaign starting this summer in anticipation of November’s general election for U.S. senator, state legislators and governor. (Join us to learn more on June 21.)
At this event in April, CTC deep-canvassers number about a dozen, most of them volunteers from out of town — New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. They’re gathered in the meeting room of the Haitian Community Help Center on Rising Sun Avenue in Lawncrest, where they will practice telling their personal stories, which were honed prior at a story-telling workshop hosted by CTC. Then, armed with their tales and a clipboard, they’ll hit the streets with a canvassing partner.
“I am so glad to be part of a group of people who proactively, one conversation at a time, are etching away and building this electorate that grows and grows and embraces compassion and inclusion,” says CTC founding director Adam Barbanel-Fried, 45, a career organizer who lives with his wife and two kids in New York.
He co-founded CTC in 2017 to apply the art of deep canvassing to electoral politics, after being impressed with the method’s success — according to research — in creating open and compassionate conversations around loaded issues like abortion, transgender rights, gay marriage and police reform. A 2020 Yale-UC Berkeley study found that “non-judgmentally exchanging narratives can help overcome the resistance to persuasion often encountered in discussions of these contentious topics.”
“Americans are hungry for conversation,” he says — not just Americans being deep canvassed, but those doing the canvassing, too. “I think that there are so many potential volunteers who want to put their time and energy into meaningful political work. They’re finding real meaning in this work.”
At the Haitian Community Help Center, volunteers nod their heads in vigorous agreement with him as they gather up their clipboards and head off in pairs to knock on doors in the 35th Ward.
Upping the likelihood of voting
When CTC deep-canvassed this area in 2020, the efforts correlated with an 83 percent voter turnout on Election Day, compared to a 70 percent turnout of their un-canvassed neighbors. CTC is hoping the current effort to get out the vote will bear similar fruit in Pennsylvania’s November election for governor and U.S. Senate.
Today’s campaign targets registered citizens who, records show, vote infrequently. Specific candidates will not be discussed, nor any party. The aim is to improve the likelihood of voters casting a ballot in the fall midterms.
“They were motivated enough to register but are not always engaged enough to get to the polls,” Barbanel-Fried says. “Our job is to help them take that next step.”
Doing so, adds Ellen Chapnick, CTC director of training and onboarding (who left her job at Columbia Law School for the volunteer gig), “can help them incorporate being a voter into their identities.”
Volunteers begin their front-step conversations by stating how worried they are that democracy is under attack and that communities are being ignored. But voting can change things, they say. Then, they ask, “If you had two minutes to talk to the most powerful official you could think of, what would you tell them?”
We are all dying to be seen, heard, and known. When we’re not, we lose the sense of belonging that all humans need to survive and thrive. The separation is wounding, and it shows up in the most dysfunctional ways: gun violence, suicide, broken families, warring neighbors, apathetic voters.
The responses come out in a flurry: The political in-fighting. Schools. Fentanyl. Trash. Crime. Jobs. Canvassers listen with empathy and kindness, reflect back what they’ve heard. (Watching Richards in action, I swear I literally saw jaded people soften in real time.)
The canvassers then remind the voters that there’s an election this fall. They ask: How likely are you to vote, on a scale of 0 to 1 (not at all) to 9 to 10 (definitely)?
The numbers vary but the goal of what comes next, the emotional story swapping, is the same: to connect powerfully enough over honorable values that a disengaged voter feels more likely to exercise a civic act of hope — casting a ballot on Election Day.
After the stories, voters are again asked their likelihood of voting. Sometimes, the number inches upward. Other times, not at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” says one voter, fed up with partisan politics, who is unwilling at the moment to raise her low number. But she also appears to have been genuinely moved by her interaction with Richards. “I’m just so disgusted. It’s hard to feel hope. But this has been really nice. Maybe … maybe.”
Deep canvassing takes time: At one house, Richards shivered in the wind for 20 minutes as a voter spoke at length of her parents, long gone and tearfully missed.
It takes patience: At another home, a cranky war veteran repeatedly groused “No one gives a damn,” while the TV blared in the living room.
It takes an authentic concern for those you listen to because “this is too hard to do if you don’t care,” says Chapnick simply.
And it takes a brand of mature persistence on the part of canvassers, a belief that the long game — a compassionate, diverse, open-hearted and involved citizenry — is worth the work. That, in fact, this is the only way to get there.
Later, back at the Haitian Community Help Center for a debriefing, the volunteers animatedly discuss their experiences.
Ellen Landsberger, 70, is a retired physician from New York and long-time canvasser. Today was her first time working with CTC.
“What was different about this experience versus other canvassing I’ve done is that this is much more satisfying,” she says. “The other times, it was much more goal-oriented — I had to knock on 70 doors, count how many registrations I brought back. Today, though, I was very relaxed. I stood at the door, I waited for them to come, I was just present.”
Volunteer Pravin Chottera, 36, a D.C.-based ad-agency designer, deep-canvassed for CTC in this area in 2020. And he’s taken by the sentiment that often emerges among those with whom he has shared stories of love.
“It’s interesting the number of times people say, If all conversations started in this way … You know, where you’re really opening yourself up and dissolving the barriers between people you just meet by circumstance — what would the world be like?” he says.
A global movement of human connection
This is where CTC is onto something so much bigger than knocking on doors in a new way.
Its mission is part of a nascent, growing and global movement by disparate groups to relieve the isolation from and suspicion of others — people not “like” us — that is creating divides that fracture our souls and sever our connections.
And all are using compassionate, curious listening as the bedrock of change.
In San Francisco, for example, two psychotherapists, heartbroken by growing loneliness, violence and inequality, have created “spaces of connection and belonging” — on the sidewalk. Their nonprofit, SideWalk Talks, has since trained more than 3,000 volunteers worldwide, who sit with strangers on city streets and just listen to them. Its motto: “Listening speaks louder than words.” All say the experience leaves them changed for the better.
Groups like CTC remind participants of something all humans know in their marrow, if only unconsciously: This life is not about us and them. It’s about us and us. Acting otherwise only fuels the lie.
Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) is a national group that helps people separated by painful divides — like politics, race, and religion — get to know each other beyond cartoonish stereotypes, via workshops and one-on-one conversations. The group’s goal is “not just to depolarize politics, but to re-imagine what it means to be an American.” People leave the get-togethers feeling newly hopeful.
In Zimbabwe, mental health practitioners have installed “friendship benches” around the city, where anyone feeling isolated, depressed or anxious can sit with a trained listener and unload from the gut, without experiencing any judgment. Research showed that the program “dramatically improved the symptoms of patients with mental health problems.”
The Human Library, founded in Denmark, breaks down divides by helping people converse with those they’d normally never meet on their own, especially those who have “experienced prejudice, social exclusion or stigma.” The organization’s events have spread to 80 countries.
These organizations, along with CTC and others, recognize the fundamental truth about the human condition: We are all dying to be seen, heard, and known. When we’re not, we lose the sense of belonging that all humans need to survive and thrive. The separation is wounding, and it shows up in the most dysfunctional ways: gun violence, suicide, broken families, warring neighbors, apathetic voters.
Yes, there will always be those on the screaming margins who leverage divisions for their own gain — whether they’re elected officials clinging to power or offended lone wolves out to cancel those with whom they disagree.
But groups like CTC remind participants of something all humans know in their marrow, if only unconsciously: This life is not about us and them. It’s about us and us. Acting otherwise only fuels the lie.
“I’m not sure I changed anyone’s minds today,” sighs Richards, when we part ways at the end of the day. “Not one person I spoke with today moved up the scale” in a way that indicates they’ll likely vote this fall.
That doesn’t mean the effort was in vain. Profound conversations have a way of reverberating days, months, even years after the fact. What the people who Richards met today know is that a lovely young woman took the time to speak with them, at length and with attention, as they spoke from their hearts. They were seen, and heard. And maybe, as a result, they know their own dreams a little better.
You never know where that might lead to. But it’s usually somewhere good.
Ronnie Polaneczky is a veteran journalist, public speaker, certified positive psychology practitioner, and enthusiastic student of listening in all its forms. Contact her via her website, RonnieListens.com.
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