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Deep Canvassing | How Compassionate Conversations Can Change Hearts and Minds

by Hawthorn McCracken, WFU Communications Intern



Increasing political polarization has dramatically impacted public debate in recent years, leaving many folks feeling frustrated. It often seems as if there’s no way to communicate effectively across ideological divides. The more we distance ourselves from those we view as enemies, the easier it becomes to dismiss their concerns or dehumanize them. Eventually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that we can’t get along with each other. So when Wisconsin Farmers Union announced that they were working with a new canvassing model, I was excited about the potential of a more human-centered approach to political action. 


At first, Deep Canvassing felt too good to be true. I was skeptical of the impact that a conversation with a stranger could have on voters’ stances. But the more I learned, the more it made sense. As a data-driven person, I’ve often had a hard time productively approaching divisive issues. It can be intimidating when people get passionate or angry during a conversation. Learning to see those emotions as a positive thing, a point of connection, has dramatically changed how I approach change-making conversations. Thinking back on my own life, I saw that most of my deeply held values originated from strong feelings, specific moments, or close relationships. As our facilitator, Bill Hogseth, said, “Facts are weak when it comes to changing how we think. Our attitudes are rooted deeper than facts and statistics; they’re rooted in our values. Many voters are saturated with impersonal one-way communications. Deep Canvassing might be their first opportunity to have a real two-way conversation about the issue.” 


For those still skeptical of such a touchy-feely approach, there’s data to back up the effectiveness of this method. Though the shift in opinion can sometimes be small, the effects of Deep Canvassing are long-lasting. Researchers found that Deep Canvassing resulted in changes in opinion that remained stable three months after the canvassing conversation. Traditional campaign ads may result in a temporary shift in views, but voters often return to baseline beliefs after the impact fades. When they are given a chance to make a personal connection to the issues, voters are much more likely to retain their new stance. 


People responded to our vulnerability by opening up themselves. In a political climate so often fueled by fear and hate, this positive connection with strangers was a breath of fresh air.

Deep Canvassing does not rely on short sound bites or hard data to convince voters. Instead, canvassers work on developing a short personal story that connects to their own values. The story does not have to be related to the canvassing topic, but it has to evoke strong emotion. My training group worked with stories in which others showed us compassion. After sharing our personal stories, canvassers invite voters to share a story of their own. By emphasizing the shared values of community care and support, canvassers encourage voters to connect their lived experiences to policy topics that are too often debated in the abstract. Facilitator John Adams noted how important it is to have these conversations to understand public needs, “ How many people are concerned about gerrymandering? We don’t know until we talk to people. Why don’t we know more about our neighbors? Those conversations aren’t really happening. Talking about why you love your land and water is a good opportunity to cross those lines.” 


Going into my first real canvassing session, I was extremely nervous. The idea of calling total strangers to engage them on political topics was terrifying. I had never canvassed before, but I had seen the fallout of heated debate in my personal life, both online and in person. When sharing her experiences with transformative conversations, facilitator Kathleen Hobert noted, “Shouting is a normalized way for us to connect with people when we disagree. We’re supposed to convince them through any means necessary. It doesn’t work and leaves us as enemies.” I imagined various scenarios of getting cursed at or angrily hung up on. The reality, however, is that people were hungry for real, compassionate conversations. 


I was surprised, as were many of my fellow trainees, that almost every call ended positively. We were told to plan for about twelve minutes per voter, but quite a few people had conversations that lasted for half an hour. People responded to our vulnerability by opening up themselves. In a political climate so often fueled by fear and hate, this positive connection with strangers was a breath of fresh air. Instead of forcing a specific point of view, Deep Canvassing allowed us to create a relationship with voters and provide a non-judgemental space in which they could explore their own views. 


Throughout this experience, I was guided by a fantastic team of facilitators and fellow canvassers. At the end of the day, I was a little more hopeful about the potential to heal the political divides that seem so intractable. After training, canvassers participate in weekly virtual phone banks, with live support from coaches and other volunteers. I’m grateful for this opportunity to learn a new organizing skill and connect more deeply with passionate Wisconsin Farmers Union members as we work together on this project. 


The goal of the Deep Canvassing project this fall is to have 1,000 impactful conversations around three topic areas: Badgercare expansion, CAFO regulations, and gerrymandering. If you are interested in learning more about this project or becoming a canvasser yourself, please check out our upcoming Info Session on Wednesday, August 26th. Trainees can sign up for the next Story Workshop on Thursday, September 3rd, and then join the Virtual Deep Canvass Training & Phone Bank on Sunday, September 6th. 


Learn more about Deep Canvassing and how you can get engaged in making change through the Rural Voices project



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