Reaching Through Fear:
Door-to-Door in Pennsylvania

byJoe Pullman


Six times this fall, I trekked to Pennsylvania and canvassed door-to-door in three different locations for the Kerry campaign. Four of these times Kaatje, my 11 year-old daughter, joined me.

That first afternoon in September, we both were scared when we approached our first house in Williamsport. I was driven by my desire for the swing state of Pennsylvania to vote Bush out so that there might be a peaceful and safe world for her and her siblings to grow up in.

But fear came up when I remembered that I hate it when people come to my door wanting something. Who am I to tell people how to vote — I’m not even from their state! What am I supposed to be doing here?

There we were, though, and the tracking sheet would tell us: James Johnson, age 48, registered Independent. I noticed that I tended to focus when a live person came to the door. There is a kind of white light about these encounters; if you can present yourself in the right way and then listen, remarkable things can happen.

What Happens in Canvassing
What can happen when we knock on someone’s door? First, they might literally step away from their TV set. And then, if they’re one-on-one with someone who: 1) they can recognize is like them; 2) with quiet enthusiasm briefly states, in personal terms, their conviction that a certain change is possible; 3) asks them what their concerns are; and 4) listens with deep respect — then — look out. These are the conditions under which people make connections between their reality and their nation’s policy; these are the conditions that spawn democracy.

So, yes. We won Pennsylvania. In all of the three counties where Kaatje and I, and scores of others canvassed, voting results were reversed from what they had been in 2000. I rang doorbells and I saw people stop what they were doing, I heard them think out loud about what national directions made sense when they considered their own situations. I listened to them shift, often from mouthing a Bush line initially, to thoughtfully differing from that very position. Given the brigades of us down there doing what the two of us were doing, I was gratified, but not surprised, at the result.

I now believe that we all have inside ourselves the beginning of the answer to the most serious problems that face us. Assessing conditions and deciding what needs to be changed, however, is an interactive process. It is through intentional contact and dialogue with another person that we get clear, synapses fire and we individually make decisions. The current culture of fear isolates us from each other, our thinking slows to a crawl and our power to change our nation’s course remains dormant.

Where We Go from Here
There is great promise for harnessing the power of this process as we move forward from the presidential election. We can use it in advancing progressive local and statewide candidacies in the near future. But since democracy is about more than candidates and parties, we can also use it to spark creative responses to the challenges already arising out of George Bush’s second term.

Canvassing works because it’s safe. Typically it happens on a person’s home turf, and is one-on-one or at most, two-on-one. There is potential, however, for modifying this formula such that one or two people might enter other “safe havens” and engage people in their clubs and congregations.

Fear and National Policy Change
I think individual isolation and fear are the greatest obstacles to national policy change. Canvassing is useful for this reason: it gives those canvassed a safe forum to realize what their interests are, own them, and therefore be able and motivated, as the case may be, to voice or vote them.

But canvassing has also been a gift to me as an activist. Meeting one-on-one with many other people who were politically different from me, and being a part of their discovering and acting on their own truth, has been highly empowering.

A challenge for activists in dark times will be not to allow our fear to silence or hold us back. We must remember Anne Frank’s “all people are good at heart”: given the chance, people will do the right thing. Proof of this, indeed, may be as close as our neighbor’s doorstep.

Joe, a social worker in Truxton, NY, seeks to meld community, activism and economic development.