Seeing someone face to face is a powerful thing. It’s the appeal of television, which has introduced us to cultures and habits we might not have known. Listening to peoples’ stories on the radio through programs such as StoryCorps has given us the opportunity to understand the depth of everyday experiences that may be alien to our own. Taking it to the next level, the local grassroots nonprofit organization SAVE — Safeguarding American Values for Everyone — has been canvassing through neighborhoods to reduce prejudice in South Florida and seeing results. The efforts have proven so powerful that they were observed and measured during an independent, study co-authored by David Broockman, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Joshua Kalla, PhD student at the University of California at Berkley. The results of the six-month study were published in April in the journal Science.
“We really are changing hearts and minds,” says Tony Lima, executive director at SAVE.
SAVE staff and volunteers have participated in close to 30 thousand conversations since they started in 2013 — between get-out-the-vote drives, petitions and a method termed deep canvassing. This last method, with its impressive results, has become the cornerstone of their new approach.
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Developed in partnership with the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Leadership LAB, deep canvassing requires volunteers to make their way through neighborhoods often neglected by most progressive groups having 10–minute conversations with voters. These meaningful exchanges require volunteers to listen to voters’ experiences and engage them in a casual way. In effect, the volunteers are connecting with voters on their real lived experiences about being judged or treated unfairly and also sharing their own experiences with discrimination as part of the LGBT community.
“We wanted to figure out a way that actually reduced prejudice towards transgender folks in a long-lasting way,” says Justin Klecha, SAVE’s director of campaigns and formerly of the Leadership LAB. “I mean having folks be less prejudiced is just a better world to be in.”
Klecha focuses primarily on the research and policy work carried out by the organization, but sometimes that translates into work that is decidedly less...wonky. Deep canvassing is among the most challenging work the organization does.
“We found that a single, approximately 10-minute conversation with a stranger produced large reductions in prejudice that persisted,” says Broockman.
“Through that process really we are able to help voters decide to be their better selves,” says Klecha. “Everybody wants to be a great person, and having them think through what it feels like to be judged and then relating that back to non-discrimination laws, we found that we could dramatically change how folks view transgender people.”
According to Kalla, the decline in prejudice within the period studied was akin to what the gay and lesbian community took more than 10 years to achieve, and it was primarily these efforts that helped push Miami-Dade to include gender identity and gender expression in the county’s human rights ordinance in December 2014.
Tried and Tested
SAVE was founded in 1993 in an effort to dismantle the anti-gay work pioneered by Anita Bryant. As founder of the Save Our Children campaign, Bryant and her supporters had the 1977 Dade county ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation repealed within the same year, and she went on to do similar work across the country. Her efforts kick started the modern anti-gay movement, but also galvanized those seeking equal rights for the LGBT community.
The ban on the original ordinance would not be overturned for 30 years, setting South Florida back decades. The publicity Bryant garnered and the harsh rhetoric she used turned the effort to attain rights into an ongoing struggle, with every success met by ensuing opposition.
“I knew that we needed to figure out something in a post-marriage equality world,” says Klecha. “We had to change the way that we did campaigns. Traditional conversations just didn’t have the impact that we needed them to have.”
Traditionally the ballot box is a toss up, with municipal measures being lost about half the time. “We know that traditional campaign tactics just simply aren’t good enough. Most conversations at the door, it’s like 2–3 minutes, and we talk at voters with very little effect,” says Klecha. “It lasts about a couple of days and usually evaporates.”
Conversely, Broockman and Kalla found that opinions regarding transgender people changed for one out of every 10 voters who had had a deep canvassing conversation. “To put that in perspective of public opinion change, it’s about what we saw in a decade to a decade and a half on marriage, so these conversations have a huge impact,” says Klecha. “The psychological term that we’ve been using to kind of explain what’s happening is active processing. Instead of telling voters what to think, it’s having them think through how they want to treat other people and how they want to be treated.”
In the Trenches
SAVE’s field organizer, Charo Valero, is the tactician of the group. She organizes the canvassing events and then rounds up, prepares and engages the army of volunteers who are ultimately responsible for the door-to-door work.
“I like to share this story about how healing it is to be able to go into neighborhoods like Hialeah and see on your walk list a 90-year-old monolingual woman and freak out and then go in and have this amazing conversation,” says Valero.
The way the conversations are structured and then guided allows volunteers and voters to connect in powerful ways. “It’s rooted in people’s real lived experiences,” says Valero. “We start humanizing a group of folks that are on the outskirts and are marginalized, and these laws are passing because of this misinformation. The objective of the work that we do is to go in these neighborhoods and build empathy for a group of people that people don’t even really know exist.”
On occasion, they are even providing people with the language to explain their own experience and identity. “It’s surprising how every now and then you’ll get a door and somebody happens to be trans. Somebody happens to be gay. Maybe they didn’t have the language. Maybe they didn’t know somebody out there was doing this,” says Valero.
This makes it healing work according to Valero. Not only are volunteers tasked with opening themselves up to complete strangers, but they sometimes find there are people they can help with information, support and resources. They are also walking away from a situation where the person visited ceases to be a boogieman.
“One of the biggest skills we work on with canvassers is building empathy and really understanding that the people who are against us aren’t bad people,” says Valero. “Not everyone is gonna be with us, even if we pour our heart out to them… But [many] folks just need access to these conversations, and what we know from the research is that we can actually have a long-term impact.”
In addition to the grassroots work that’s done through this canvassing, SAVE has been very conscious of the fact that this community in particular needs to be reached in the language it speaks. They took the message to the airwaves with a public service announcement (PSA) developed with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her transgender son Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen. The PSA features Rodrigo with his parents — both highly public figures — delivering a message about the importance of fairness and basic rights. It was recorded in both English and Spanish and has appeared in various national markets through MSNBC, CNN, Telemundo and Univision.
“The national ramifications include being able to talk about the issues that are happening in North Carolina and Mississippi,” says Lima. “Through our policy work, helping pass a resolution or legislation locally impacts what’s happening over there as well.”