Late afternoon, on a chilly but sunny day in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I set out to do door-to-door canvassing for Bernie. About 10 people, mixed in age, met our contact person from Communications Workers of America at the Dunkin Donuts on Church and Nostrand Avenues. It was a quick in and out without much orientation or conversation. We were there to work. We got lists of registered Democratic Party voters we were tasked to visit. Only about 25% of people on the lists were at home, but we had lots of lively and interesting conversations, both with people on our lists and with people on the streets.
It was great to be back in Flatbush, a neighborhood near Brooklyn College where I taught psychology for 42 years and ran arts-based after-school programs for Brooklyn high school students, many of those programs in Flatbush. Lots of my BC students came from Flatbush. For 17 summers I ran programs providing training for college students as youth development workers with special needs kids, again, many from Flatbush. And I grew up not far from here, just one neighborhood away. So I was happy to be back on familiar turf.
Here’s how I usually start out when someone answers the door: “Hi, I’m Nancy and I am working with the Bernie Sanders for President campaign. Can I please speak with _______ (voter’s name on the list)? Do you plan to vote in the upcoming April 19th New York State primary?”
And the conversation goes on from there. Usually I ask if the person has heard about Bernie and if they plan to vote for him? What have you heard about him? And then a short discussion ensues, depending on what the person has to say, concerns they have, etc. If the person says that they plan to vote for Hilary, I thank them and move on. No arguments here, just respect and a better use of my time.
I like to mention in the conversations I do have that the New York primary can turn the tide on the Democratic Party nomination and that I think Bernie stands up for working people. Then I weave in references to getting corporate money out of politics, ending trade deals that bleed jobs out of the US, criminal justice reform, and challenging the fossil fuel industry on climate change, moving to a clean energy economy. I try to squeeze in free college tuition and Medicare for all. But listening to and responding to the concerns and ideas of the people we meet is the most important part of the process. And that’s what’s so fantastic about this work: you learn a great deal about what people are thinking, how they approach their political choices. You are not sitting in a room with other progressive activists and arguing abstract ideas. You are using your democratic rights to, in tiny ways, influence the political process.
About half of the people who were home that day were okay with having a conversation about the upcoming April 19 primary election in New York State. In this mostly Caribbean neighborhood, practically everyone we spoke with who was under 40 was Bernie all the way. Older voters either didn’t know much about Bernie or were voting for Hilary. Overall, Bernie’s numbers were much stronger.
We mounted the steps of a modest and well-kept home and rang the bell. An all male crew appeared: 10, 16 and 19-year old and what looked like their dad. The 10-year- old spoke first saying he was for Trump. The others yelled at him, saying, “No, Trump hates us.“ The older three men were strong Bernie supporters. When I asked them what they liked most about Bernie they said jobs, free college tuition and support for workers. They thanked us for doing the work and we moved on.
We bumped into teachers on the way back from the local middle school. They were also Bernie fans and had quite a lot to say about the authoritarian nature of the NYC Public Schools and the hated testing regime. Did they have time to help canvass or make phone calls for Bernie? No way: they work all the time, at home and at school, to keep up with the demands of their jobs.
In all, that day we spoke with about 25 people in 2 hours. The multiple dwellings were pretty easy to enter. We rang the bells of people on our lists and, if they were home, they usually let us in. Once inside the buildings, we would then knock directly on the apartment doors only of the people on our lists, not all the apartment doors. We left literature with little notes on them, greeting them personally, and slipped them under the doors.
A few days later, going door-to-door in Flatbush again, this time near Flatbush Avenue and Linden Boulevard, more people were home and mostly happy to chat about the upcoming primary. We got to talk with about 40 people this time, including people on the street who were not on our lists. On one occasion we were buzzed into a large apartment house with a maintenance person who was, at first, quite stern with us: no soliciting allowed. We showed the maintenance worker our lists and soon she became our ally, letting us know who had just walked out the front door, who came home from a late night shift and wouldn’t want to be disturbed and whose bell we could go ahead and ring Being super respectful and open with the maintenance worker and underscoring that Bernie is for the working people helped to garner her support in our door –to-door work in her building.
The Age Divide
Again we witnessed the the age divide: pretty much everyone under 40 for Bernie; those over 55 for Hilary. One of the few white voters we canvassed said he had sent money to Bernie but was worried about the lack of specificity on foreign policy. I agreed with him and said I wished Bernie would be more specific on that. I referred him to Bernie’s excellent AIPAC statement that he said he had read but still wanted more. I also suggested he check out feelthebern.org for Bernie’s full policy positions.
All the while we keep track of the responses of the voters we speak with so that the Bernie campaign can best target whom to reach out to, especially in the final get out the vote (GOTV) effort the last few days before April 19. I entered the information I was gathering on an electronic app, “Minivan”, which makes the data entry automatic. Super high tech! People who are not comfortable with the technology can write the voter information they gather on paper and return it to the campaign office.
I work out of the Bernie office in Gowanus, Brooklyn (131 8th St, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Other friends of mine are working out of the Harlem office: 175 W. 137th St between Lenox (Malcolm X) Avenue and 7th Avenue (Adam Clayton Powell). These offices are open every day from 9 am to 9 pm. You can go to BernieSanders.com and click on to “events” or to “phonebank” and find out more information about how to start volunteering.
To me this is a great opportunity, limited as it is, to talk politics to people I wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to speak with. I try to advance the idea that we need a movement that is progressive and strong, no matter who wins the primary or the general election.
If the conversation allows, I say that one of Obama’s big problems was that he disbanded Organizing for America, his grassroots organizing arm, as soon as he was elected in 2008 and that organization could have served as a support for progressive policies. I try to advance the idea that there is joy in organizing for a better government, for a better future for working people, a way to slow down climate change, a chance to exercise and protect our democratic rights. I try to locate the Bernie campaign and the movements that I hope will come out of it with labor struggles, Black Lives Matter, the women’s movement, immigrant rights, climate movement, peace movement and the march of history that requires our deep participation.
I love this stuff because I truly believe that an active citizenry can shift our nation from oligarchy to social democracy—the only way to save our planet.
To see more of The Indypendent’s coverage of the 2016 Elections, click here.
THE BATTLE OF NEW YORK
Note: The Indypendent and The Occupied Wall Street Journal are teaming up to produce and distribute 500,000 copies of a special edition titled The Battle of New York that will be distributed in the week before the April 19 New York primary. To find out more about this historic project and how you can support it, please click here.