People knocking on a door

Just when we were ready to move on to the next step in “Tips and Tools,” we have a public health pandemic with politicians and pundits predicting the whole world of work and popular activity will change. Social distancing will mean the end of meetings. Work will be remote or at home, rather than office based. Fewer will travel and the whole world will zoom into the future as masked marauders six feet apart. No one can doorknock. People won’t open their doors.

Trust me on this: not in our neighborhoods.

Drive into almost any low-moderate-income community, and I challenge you to count the masks and make a note where you happen to see social distancing. It’s just not happening in the same way. There is a real racial, age, and class divide here that is starkly visible.

Bus service for example in many cities require masks now to ride public transit. In fact, talking to the head of a regional transit authority yesterday, he said maybe half of the riders in his majority African-American city was wearing masks. Talking to the bus drivers’ union leadership, they were clear that their drivers were in no position to enforce the decree. They are drivers, not police.

In tests we have done recently in a number of countries, this is being borne out repeatedly. In Lyon, France, the first day on the doors, a new member signed up, an old member reported having doorknocked their neighbors to get thirty signatures on a “cancel rent debt” petition, and three members on the block held an impromptu house meeting to make plans with the organizer. In British Columbia, mush the same experience. In New Orleans on the first day on the doors, the organizer reported that people were genuinely glad to see him! We are now preparing field tests on voter purges in Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania on the doors to determine accuracy of registration lists. Advising voter registration directors in Milwaukee, I recommended that stop piddling around and hit the doors: try it, you’ll like it!

A universal rule of organizing is not to make the mistake of presumption, believing you know what people will think or say without putting it to the test, and listening to what people say and letting the experience in reality guide your path. Admittedly, the majority of home visits are never in the living room, even if such in-home visits are more effective, but on the porch talking through the screen door. That’s already social distancing, and it works for organizing just fine, but you have to take the organization to the people to give it a chance. The biggest obstacles to the effectiveness in door knocking now as we leave the pandemic, are mental – in the organizers’ heads.

People want to talk to people, not computer screens. Low levels of internet access and technical training already make such communication difficult in organizing low-and-moderate-income communities. Social media, Zoom calls, and other tools are excellent for communication and used well will increase participation for some members as well as training and leadership opportunities, but that doesn’t make them suitable substitutes for doorknocking in building mass organization.

In 1975, ACORN was organizing in our first expansion state after Arkansas in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Having begun the organizing in January so that the first groups would emerge in the spring, we knew what winter was like there. One of the best days ever recorded in fifty years of organizing was one day on the doors during a blizzard. The organizer was invited into 18 of 19 doors. Everyone was home. No one could believe he was out on the doors. Everyone was happy to talk to him. People joined ACORN in droves.

Listen to the people you are organizing, not the sound and fury all around you. Find out for yourself. The time is ripe for organizing as people greet the economic collapse all around us and try to find a way to move forward with others. A pandemic everywhere is like that South Dakota blizzard: an opportunity to be the first organization willing and able to reach out to people in their homes and give them a chance to come together, act, and win.