Building a Bigger We, One Conversation at a Time

Racism continues to be the dominant force in American political life. The killing of George Floyd and the uprising of people across the country, followed by the aggressive overreaction by the police and Donald Trump, have focused the nation like a laser on the incredible amount of work we have to do to address anti-Black racism and the role of policing in America.

Social change takes place in steady streams and in big bursts. In the struggle for Black lives, we are in a big-burst moment, which we need to extend for as long as possible. The big burst moments are possible because of the steady stream work that often goes unseen — leadership from the Movement for Black Lives over the last five years is just one example. And when the big moments have passed we are back to the daily grind where it is sometimes hard to tell if we are making progress.

I want to share the story of some steady stream work–through the practice of deep canvassing–to help people rethink an issue where race is central: immigration. Our partners at the New Conversations Initiative describe deep canvassing as non-judgmentally inviting a voter to open up about real, conflicted feelings on an issue. From there, canvassers share vulnerable moments about their own life and ask curious questions about the voter’s life, especially the experiences that have shaped how they feel about a conflicted issue. This model works because of the space created through shared story, being vulnerable, and sincere curiosity about the other person’s life.

People’s Action, the organization I lead, is now applying deep canvassing over the phone to address anti-Black racism as well as anti-Chinese sentiment further stirred up by this president. That work is grounded in lessons learned from a deep canvass effort we just completed focused on immigration.

Researcher Lee Drutman describes a good 20 percent of the electorate as “cross pressured,” meaning they are liberal on issues like expanding public health care and raising the minimum wage but anywhere from conflicted to regressive on immigration. I believe this group’s eventual understanding of immigration will play an outsized role in our ability to address issues ranging from climate change, income inequality, policing, and immigration itself.

We set out to test deep canvass conversations about immigration in rural areas and small cities. These conversions happened in tiny Michigan towns surrounded by corn and soy like Imlay, Capac, and Emmit, populations 3500, 1890, and 269. In the North Carolina Piedmont, we talked with people in trailer courts surrounded by live fights over Confederate monuments. We talked to voters in older, multiracial working class neighborhoods on the outskirts of smaller cities like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The work in the community led by Michigan United, Down Home North Carolina, and Pennsylvania Stands Up.

The framework for these conversations was the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in expanded public health care. People who supported universal health care would often reduce their support significantly if the policy included undocumented immigrants. When people would share these sentiments, we would take this in without judgement, and instead be curious. We were transparent and shared that we did support immigrant inclusion in public health care benefits.

Then we moved into the conversation. We would try and help the person locate a story of someone they know that had moved to the United States. It could be someone in their family, in the neighborhood, a co-worker, or their own family history. We would be curious about these experiences. We’d then share one from our own life — many of the canvassers were immigrants or children of immigrants, others spoke about a relative, a friend, someone they know through work. But mostly we would listen.

One of the first people we talked with through our affiliate Michigan United was Harold (note: name changed for this piece). He has worked hard his whole life and lives in rural Michigan. Harold supports universal health care, but does not support that benefit being available to undocumented immigrants. As we sought to understand his experience, he acknowledged being fearful of immigrants, saying it made him nervous when he heard people speak languages different than his own. We shared how our understanding of immigration had taken shape. And kept being curious about his life and the source of his fear. We also asked him to talk about a hard moment in his life, one in which he needed help, and we shared one from our own. We found over and over that people were more than willing to share these stories.

Fifteen minutes in Harold said, “You know, come to think of it I don’t know any of these immigrants. Not really.” And we saw it wash over his face. “Actually, everything I know about immigrants I learned on the news.”

It was also clear that Harold felt shame about how his life had played out. Well into the conversation we learned that he did know an immigrant — his dad immigrated from England. He felt like his dad had made such progress, and he had not lived up to those expectations. On his own, he made the connection that buying into anti-immigrant rhetoric wasn’t going to help him or his neighbors get health care or better wages.

Harold genuinely thanked us for the conversation. It was as if we had given him a gift by creating a rare safe space, in the midst of a tribal moment, to digest a complicated issue. Go figure–you could find this safety with a complete stranger on your front porch. This process works because of the quality of the space the canvassers create.

A sure way to get someone to to dig in on their current beliefs, is tell them they are wrong. The natural reaction is to defend one’s belief. But when you bring people into a real conversation that includes listening on both sides, something opens up.

We partnered with David Broockman of UC Berkeley and Josh Kalla, of Yale University, to design the study. In the end, eight out of every 100 people with whom we spoke shifted significantly in their view of immigrants. That shift lasted at least 4.5 months (the last period in which we measured). This is significant in that a sizable chunk of folks we spoke with already agreed undocumented immigrants should have access to public benefits, and a significant portion of who disagreed were very unlikely to move (we spoke to all registered Republicans, Independents, and Democrats in the areas we canvassed). The shift generated by these conversations equals more than 6 years of attitude change on gay marriage and is larger than the shift away from Democrats in Michigan from 2012 to 2016–all from one 15 minute conversation.

Fortunately, we’ve found these conversations transition well to phones, particularly in the COVID-19 context. Over 15% of the people we’ve called since shelter in place became common have answered their phones and engaged with us. Over 85% of those folks have been willing to share stories of vulnerable moments in their life, on the phone.

The right will use the issue of immigration (and racism generally) to divide everyday folks from one another along racial lines. I believe our ability to address the most pressing issues in American life — whether climate change or racial and economic inequality — requires being in real conversation with folks about anti-Blackness, xenophobia and other forms of racism. It will require more than media outreach and digital ads. It will require real conversations. And the quality of those conversations matter.

We need to find more ways where we can help people reach new levels in our understanding of and therefore readiness to address racism in America. Sometimes that will happen amidst a national uprising. Sometimes it will happen one conversation at a time. We will need it all.

George is the Director of People's Action & People's Action Institute. And hosts the podcasts The Next Move & To See Each Other.