Thursday, March 02, 2006

Walking and working for Clean Water

Being an 'activist' is easy among friends and supporters. But where it really becomes challenging is out in the field - among the neutral, the faintly hostile and the confrontational. Perhaps this is what I wanted to experience when I signed on to be a field canvasser with Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group. Perhaps it was just the idea of making money while talking about something I believe. Well, all I can say after the first 4 weeks is – what an experience!

My work involves going to neighborhoods (based on predetermined turf maps), knocking on people's doors and asking them to sign on. They are asked to support our present campaign monetarily and/or by writing a letter to their representatives. The current campaign is to get more renewable energy (wind, solar, biomass) in Minnesota by passing a 'Renewable Electricity Standard'. This would set a goal of 20% of Minnesota's electricity needs to come from renewable sources by 2020 and, among other things, reduce mercury emissions from coal plants. At present, there are non-binding objectives with some electricity companies and a mandate for Excel Energy, which provides half of Minnesota's electricity, to get 10% from renewable sources by 2015.

The issue has been receiving coverage – it seems Minnesota is the biggest importer of power in the US (from other states as well as Canada) when there is enough wind potential to supply all the power needed. There are a number of projects and initiatives being launched in South-west Minnesota, including a wind turbine manufacturing facility in Pipestone set up by an Indian company. But of course, all this counts for nothing in the absence of legislation and citizen support. Hence, the need for advocacy and lobbying groups such as CWA.

The responses I receive at doors span the gamut. There are people who will sign up immediately and hand you a check almost before you can get a word in. There are others who will scold you for coming to the door so late at night (we work from 4.30 – 9 pm). Some gesture at you from inside without opening the door, almost setting their dogs on me. Since I have often had my privacy intruded upon, I can understand to an extent. But I must say my favorite naysayers are the ones who open the door, politely say that they are not interested and sometimes add, 'Thank you for doing this.' Bless their hearts! On one particularly cold evening, a sweet lady asked me to come in and warm my feet: 'Honey, it's freezing out there!' but politely declined to support CWA's work. I wished her a good evening, as I typically do, and moved on.

Then there are the undecided ones: the people who supposedly make up a sizable chunk of the population. 'What does it mean if I sign on?', 'Uhh, mercury? It's in our fish?', 'I don't know what difference it will make.' On Monday, a woman in her 20s said, 'Uh, I don't know. I don't think I could do this.' I told her, 'This is how democracy works.' And she wrote a letter. Yay!

The suspicious ones ask what we will do with this information. 'I don't want any calls at home – I get enough already.' I explain to them that to sell this list or misuse it in any way would be suicidal to us since we are a citizen-supported group. With the people who talk about how much I get as a cut from this, that I'm just another person making a paycheck, I trot out my old corporate job and salary for their inspection! That seems to get a contribution 80% of the time – I got to figure out how to use it more often!

The hardest part of the job is to make people contribute. Maybe it's because of my natural reticence on this front – I've never been too comfortable fundraising. But here I realize it's more than that – when people make a donation, they think about the issue. They get vested in it. Maybe they'll write letters and send e-mails – maybe they'll vote yes if it appears on their ballot. So it's important. Every reason in the world is offered for not contributing: 'I lost my job', 'I can't pay my mortgage' (and this is in a palatial house with a massive flat-screen TV), 'We're done with all our charitable giving for the year', 'I have health problems'. Some seem genuine, some not. Oh well – I'm not a mind reader! I tell them why it's important, re-negotiate the contribution...

The worst experience I've had so far was this gentleman who kept me at his door for almost half an hour, debating. Whenever I tried to disengage, he would tell me, 'Miss, you came to my door. You disturbed me. Now the least you can do is listen.' He talked about his investment in a windmill on his land in Southwest Minnesota - $300,000 - and how it is yielding little (the low-risk approach is to lease the land to a Utility company or join a consortium). He said that all this talk of mercury from coal was just talk, if we were really concerned, we should be moving towards nuclear energy etc. I tried to counter these arguments but could not match his debating skills. One valuable lesson from this experience: one cannot debate at doors, and the job of a canvasser is not to convert the skeptics – it is to move the mildly supportive and the undecided in our direction. And to harness more support from those who already agree with us.

Some of those folks are amazing – there are a lot of people who seem to be just waiting for us to come to their door. 'Oh, yes, you want money!' and out come their checkbooks. Some say they don't want to do more than contribute and I say, great, we'll do all the work for you! (After all the AID work, that seems weird – of course we want people to get involved!) Others have canvassed in the past or their children have and theirs' seems to be a sympathy contribution. Hey, we'll take what we can get. One man who really wanted to vent, I think, talked about how he and his wife had contributed a huge amount to one of the big charity organizations after the Indian Ocean tsunami. After that, almost once every 2 weeks, there is a mailing from them asking for more money. I told him we were a small group and would not do that. But he still wanted to make a statement. So he contributed one cent less than the newsletter subscription level! A little rehabilitative therapy, I hope!