Phone Banking for Minnesotans United
I've been meaning to blog about this, and then getting distracted. I've been doing "voter outreach" once a week since sometime in September; I got sucked in by a volunteer recruitment person at the Minnesota State Fair, and she talked me into trying it. And it's not exactly easy, but it is possible and it's surprisingly rewarding.
I've done it from two offices -- both the Minneapolis office (near Loring Park) and the St. Paul office (at Fairview and University). I highly recommend the St. Paul office because they have parking; even if the lot by the building is full, the on-street parking in the area is all free. The area around the Minneapolis office is all two-hour metered parking and the shifts are three hours. St. Paul also has much better snacks. Last week someone had brought in a pumpkin pie.
They give you a script for phone banking, and when you come the first two times you go through training where you rehearse with another volunteer. They strongly encourage you to focus on telling compelling stories -- about yourself, about real people you know who have names and problems and families. I had actually asked for permission (over on facebook) to use the names and stories of my LGBT friends, and had explicit permission from several people, which is good because it makes me feel a lot more comfortable talking about them. (Lyda and Shawn, Jo and Jen, Benji -- all of you have been featured in these conversations, along with Mason, Tristan, and Eamon.) Studies have found that this tactic is much more effective than abstract conversations about fairness, justice, and equality.
A lot of the people doing the phone banking are older straight married people with adult gay kids. They are, in fact, particularly successful at it, because the older straight married people we are trying to persuade feel comfortable talking to someone who is like them in those ways.
Honestly, although I would never discourage gay and lesbian people from doing this sort of calling, on a fundamental level I feel like this is the responsibility of straight allies (and allies with straight privilege). No one is challenging my right to be married to Ed. When I get a really awful call -- and I've had one pretty much every week -- it is still not my human rights that are being questioned. I had a call last week where the guy said that back in Vietnam, if you found a queer, "you dealt with it." I am glad that I was the one on the phone with that creep, and not the rather shy gay man who was doing phone banking on that same shift. It's upsetting to deal with people like this when you're an ally, but I know from personal experiences that it's a really different sort of upsetting when it's you who's being attacked.
It is the good calls that make it worthwhile.
Last week, my very last call was to an older man. The first question on the current script is how people are going to vote on the amendment: he said he was voting yes. The second question is whether they support same-sex marriage (because some people still have it backward, and if they're in favor of same-sex marriage and planning to vote yes, you want to clear up their confusion.) He said he didn't. The third question is whether he thought it was okay to be gay, and he said no, not really.
At that point you usually end the call, because the point of this calling is to reach people who are persuadable. I started to end the call, and the guy said, "wait, wait. So how are YOU going to vote?"
I said, "I'm going to vote no, because this amendment will hurt people I love."
And then I talked about Jo and Jen, and Lyda and Shawn, and he listened. And his voice softened, and he said that he was seventy years old, and when he was younger, there weren't any gay people. And then he backed that up and said he knew that there WERE, but they had to stay in the closet and not talk about it.
I talked about Benji: he was my first boyfriend, and he was actually a really great first boyfriend. But he would have been a TERRIBLE husband for me, because he was gay. And in fact he's married to a man; they just celebrated their second anniversary. And I've been married to my husband for sixteen years, and I said that I was so grateful things worked out the way they did. (Benji and I were never dating all that seriously, but I think the point still holds, here.)
The man laughed appreciatively and we talked some more. He didn't know any gay people -- at least, none that he knew about. (When someone has gay friends and is planning to vote yes, I always tell them that I hope before they vote they'll talk to their friends and ask them how they feel about this amendment, and whether they think it will hurt them. That's not a line I can use when someone straight up doesn't know any gay people, so far as they know.) But he listened, and he thought about it. The best part of these calls is when you have a conversation like this one, where you can hear in the other person's voice that you have opened a new window for them, one they never knew was there, and light's coming in.
He moved from "Yes" to "Undecided, and planning to give this some serious thought." And he thanked me, with real sincerity, for calling and having this conversation with him.
So, yeah. If you've thought about phone banking and you haven't done it, I would really encourage you to try it. In addition to training beforehand there's debriefing after, where you find out how many calls you made and how many people moved, so even if you had a really bad three hours you get a sense of how effective your whole group was. In addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are lots of suburban locations; there are afternoon, evening, and weekend shifts; and if voter outreach just sounds too hard, there are lots of other things they need volunteers to do. (And it won't be long before they switch over to get-out-the-vote, and they will need volunteers for that, too.)