April 9, 2013 - 16:16
During Spring Break, students from William & Mary joined the Danville Chapter to learn about grassroots organizing. Below is a series of reflections from one of those students. Great work!
By Maia Tinder
We started off the day meeting with our community partner, a local chapter of a community organizing agency, about canvasing in order to develop goals based on the needs of community members. We learned that communities in the area do not have very many “political resources,” and that legislators and campaign organizers do not commonly go there looking for votes or trying to listen to their concerns. This organization tries to give them a voice.
We spent the day canvassing in a middle class neighborhood, where people were not that motivated to get involved. It was a little discouraging. Most of the people were not home, but the people that I did talk to were skeptical. They treated me like I often treat someone at my door: sometimes I don’t answer the door nor do I give the person the time of day. I lost morale throughout the day, expecting each door to be another, “not home” or uninterested person. That was until I came to one woman’s door. She was born in the community, but had lived in Richmond for five years before she returned to care for her mother. I spoke with her for about 15 minutes about the changes she would like to see and how this community is so under-resourced compared to other cities in Virginia. She told me about how she really believed in the power of numbers and how individual voices can really be heard by legislators; that it’s not hopeless. She had called Bill Clinton once when she didn’t like something that he was doing and they called her back and discussed her opinions with her. That gave her a lot of hope and respect for our democratic system. She wanted to help spread the word that the individual voice was valuable. It made me realize that this individual power applies to me as well. I can’t expect every door and every person to be interested in our causes, but my work in recruiting this woman, even if she the only committer person I interacted with for the day, she may end up making a huge difference within the organization and its community.
We continued canvasing in another, lower-income neighborhood. When we got there, there was a very noticeable difference between the quality of those houses and the quality of houses we had visited thus far. As we knocked on doors, the people yelled through the door “Who is it?!” at every single house. One woman even sent her son upstairs to stick his head out the window and ask me who I was and why I was there. Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned problems with crime, violence, drugs, and gangs, which I did not hear in any other neighborhood. The first door I knocked on, I asked what her biggest concerns in her community were, and she just responded, “This town sucks, baby, there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” and shut the door. The sense of hopelessness was unparalleled in any other community.
At another house, we asked a woman what issues were most important to her regarding the community. The woman initially answered, “Oh, I don’t know.” But, I had a sense that she had more to say, and I was right. The conversation turned around so much that when we asked her if we could take her contact information to get in touch with her about meetings, she said, “You know I’ll be there, baby!” She spoke to us for about 15 minutes about how she thought minimum wage needs to be raised. For a long time she had been collecting unemployment checks, but now she was working a full time job and was making less money than before. It was almost unaffordable for her to work her job. This is an issue that I had learned about in a Sociology class at William and Mary, but seeing someone who stated this fact from her own experience instead of just having people so distant from the issue—college students and professors who mathematically and statistically figure out that this is an issue or know from reading research—made the issue very real. The conversation showed me a lot about how much I have learned from this experience as well, I had become a very confident canvasser and was open to talking to everyone who answered the door.
It’s going to be very weird going back to school and “the regular world.” I feel like this is my life now and I don’t want to leave! We have spent all day every day for several days focusing on how we can support this organization through recruiting members by canvassing, and it has made me have a greater appreciation for everything in my life. I always have been a little bit bothered by people who are exorbitant, excessive, and wasteful with their consumption and when the have the money choose to carelessly spend it on useless and unnecessary things. I think that that feeling will be even stronger now, at least when I first get back. I want to help other people realize how little money and material “things” matter to happiness, and how many important things we can use our money for. Even if you have a lot of it, being careful and efficient with your money is a valuable skill.
My experiences canvassing have been unlike any other volunteer or service I have ever experienced, and I honestly think it is exactly what I was missing. As a pre-med student, I have spent a lot of time in healthcare settings such as hospitals. However, canvassing allows you to visit a person at their home and a snippet of what their lives and days are like instead of seeing them in a very narrow sphere like when they are in a hospital. Visiting individuals in their homes and hearing the concerns that affect their entire lives gives me a much broader picture of the struggle that people are going through in various communities. This will make me see the bigger picture from now on whenever I am working with a patient in the hospital. I will be more aware of the issues that affect their lives. It will also serve to humanize the patient, which is very difficult for many doctors due to the nature of their work, but something I believe to be very important if you are truly going to improve the health of the individual for the long-term. We cannot be afraid to discuss these issues and fight for change in all aspects of peoples’ lives.
I’ve been fortunate, because when I was younger growing up in Florida, there were very wealthy people in my community and many programs to fund art camps, theater camps, nature camps, and anything else you could imagine. A site leader noted that in larger cities, programs can attract grant money to pay for those that cannot afford them. What is the solution in a smaller town like this? I think this is part of the larger problem, and hopefully all of the people who are concerned about this issue will be able to come together to find a solution along with the organization’s help. The divide between high-income and low-income individuals in this community makes me very sad. The problem is much bigger than any small solution, but raising awareness and everyone taking the time to exit the narrow sphere that they live in and becoming aware of the perspective of others in their own community is one of the most valuable assets a person can have.
This trip has confirmed for me that I want to be a doctor serving underserved populations and become an active member of my community. I want to stay aware and involved in improving the lives of everyone in the community in which I end up living, as well as the country and the world. I have also realized that staying too focused on a strictly pre-med curriculum can be especially damaging, so I want to keep reading news sources to stay in touch with social problems. I hope to take a greater breadth of social science courses, especially economics and possibly government. Being able to see the big picture and not getting caught up in the tiny scientific facets of a disease is so important and will make me an infinitely better doctor and person.