07 October 2010

Lessons of a Canvasser

I spent the last few weeks working as a canvasser on the streets of DC, primarily around Dupont Circle.  After a few weeks of work, I quit.  Although I was really good at it and got paid really well, canvassing proved to be more emotionally exhausting than I was able to handle, and as the cold, rainy days of fall came about, I simply could no longer subject myself to the stress and the rejection.  In those weeks, I learned some real-life lessons that I never expected to learn. Here they are:

1. Sexism is real.  Being someone who is perceived as a female and working on the streets put me in a position where I had a lot of sexism directed at me.  It was frustrating.  The mildest form was when people would call me "cute" when I came up to them.  It was totally infanticizing and disrespectful.  Worse were comment from men asking me to look at them or to pay attention to them: not because they were interested in what I was doing, but because they felt entitled to my attention.  The company I was working for is an environmentalist group, and one of the worst incidents was when a man asked me to look him in the eyes because "all green people have green eyes".  When I ignored him, he shouted after me, insisting that I should give him my name so he could call my boss, because he'd signed up for the e-mail list yesterday.  It was disgusting.  Another awful incident was when two men who I approached stopped to listen to what I was saying, and then began asked me about my accent and started asking me to speak Russian, commenting on how cute and hot it is.  Feeling insulted, I asked them if they want to sign up or not in a rather aggressive tone, and they commented on how "bossy" I am.  This double standard made me really upset.  When will there come a day when people perceived as women don't experience misogyny on the streets?

2. On being overlooked.  A canvasser is overlooked.  The reactions of the folk I approached quickly began to eat away at my heart.  People looked right through me, or they didn't look at me at all.  Some people wouldn't react at all when I approached, pretending that I didn't exist.  Some people gave me those facetious smiles.  Some people would straight up make rude comments about wanting to be left alone as I approached them.  Being overlooked hurt, yet I am privileged.  I am white, I am visibly middle-class, I was visibly employed, I speak Standard English (be it with an accent).  I felt entitled to the attention of the people I approached, not consciously, but because I've always felt entitled to attention before.  What about people who don't have my privileges?  What about poor people of color on the streets? How about homeless people asking for some money just to buy lunch?  What about the folk selling things like Street Sense in DC or Voice in Denver?  I've never experienced such rejection before, but there are people who experience it every day, people who live in rejection, who are perpetually overlooked by passerby's and politicians.  Like Andrea Gibson said in the poem For Eli: "One third of the homeless men in this country are veterans, and we have the nerve to support our troops with pretty yellow ribbons, while giving nothing but dirty looks to their outstretched hands".

3. Environmentalism for the elites.  I was canvassing for an organization that partnered with sustainable businesses in the area, creating a network of local, eco-friendly business.  I collected e-mail addresses for people to receive discounts similar to Groupons in their inbox.  Everyone working for this business was so passionate about what the were doing.  They wanted to truly make change happen, they wanted to expand nationwide, they wanted to do something great.  They were truly great people with great intentions.  The "rap" I would say when I came up to people started out with "we want to make green living affordable for everyone".  Every time I said it, I felt like a liar and a traitor.  Here I am, walking the parks, intentionally avoiding people I knew don't have e-mail: the poor, the homeless.  Yet here I am, saying we want to make green living affordable for everyone.  Who is everyone?  Why does everyone never include poor folk?  Environmental issues disproportionately impact poor people of color, such as communities in developing countries threatened by climate change and pollution or residents of neighborhoods like East St. Louis that are built in the gutters of industrial waste.  Poor folk of color cannot access green food, much less any healthy, affordable food due to the lack of supermarkets in their neighborhoods and the lack of public transportation to access supermarkets elsewhere.  We never hear about those people when we discuss the environment.  Mainstream environmentalist movements ignore and erase the lives of poor folk of color.  So these young, passionate, optimistic, well-meaning entrepreneurs like the people I worked for simply don't know about these issues.  These things don't ever cross their mind, so no one ever bothers to help the people that truly need help.  Environmentalism is environmentalism for the elites.

4. What now? I fell in love with the streets during those weeks working as a canvasser.  I grew close to the sidewalks I walked and the parks I frequented.  I became attached to the faces I saw and the people I passed by.  But my heart grew weary and weak.  What does it mean to think these thoughts? What does it mean to write them down? Here I am, flaunting my command of "big" words, sharing my knowledge of academic studies on marginalized and oppressed folk, listing all these -isms I've never experienced, yet I'm not doing anything to help anyone.  Sure, I do trans advocacy on campus, but what does that really mean?  I'm not saying I shouldn't be helping the trans folk on campus, but what bout poor trans women of color, who are most likely to be attacked and murdered?  What does it mean to read about their murders but to do nothing?  What does it really mean to care? What does it mean to ask these questions?  I want to do something, but I really don't know where to start.  I think I'm going to start reading about and learning about direct action again.  I was really inspired by the Food not Bombs people that I saw at Dupont every Sunday serving food to anyone who wanted it, and I know that's a prime example of an anarchist direct action organization.  But reading won't do much, either.  Direct Action is about acting, not reading, and, well, I don't know where to begin.  But maybe I did begin.  Maybe step one is learning, and maybe this is a process I'm working towards.

1 comment:

  1. I think reading and learning is crucial for someone of privilege who is looking to help those who do not have it. You can't just jump in and say, "I'm here to help." You have to jump in and learn more than read and learn, but you should start somewhere.

    Also, Food Not Bombs sounds cool. There is a restaurant somewhere in Denver where you name the price for your food, and it's similar. So rich business people often go and spend $20 for a meal that someone who lives on the streets nearby the restaurant will pay a nickel for. It evens out and people get connected across classes.