8 – It’s your call – Phone banking as an organizing tool

By Yvonne Su

While the pandemic and algorithms force organizers to get more creative, there are some tools that don’t go out of style. Organizing begins with talking to people one on one. That hasn’t changed. Electoral campaigns (for candidates and issues) still spend huge amounts of money and people power to knock on doors and make calls. While these campaign goals are mainstream, the conversations from canvassing apply to organizers working toward liberation. My experience calling voters about the California Governor recall gave me a broader perspective on where people are at and how we might move them to join us in the good fight.

Before I began phone banking, I questioned how effective calls would be when so few people now pick up their phones, let alone talk to a stranger. As discouraging as the experience sometimes was, it affirmed the tedious work of making progress. Hearing hundreds of refusals from real people does change you. It also really drives home the idea that moving the needle happens one person, one supporter at a time — tough, but definitely doable.

Between August and September, I made thousands of dials that resulted in hangups and refusals, and talked to about 600 voters. There is nothing at all radical about keeping Governor Gavin Newsom in office, but seeing the amount of work, people and money it takes to keep an elected Democrat in office opened my eyes to how difficult making actual change in this state and country is. The kind of sea change we’d like to see is unlikely to happen electorally, but that doesn’t mean we give up and cede ground to conservatives.

Here are some of my findings from talking to voters:

  • The idea of the next generation being more engaged is appealing, but the truth is they are no less capitalist and selfish than previous generations. Youth still need to be organized, and they can’t be counted as automatic allies. 
  • Your most enthusiastic allies may not be in the constituencies you expect. I found really enthusiastic Asian, Latinx, and older white voters voting NO on the recall, and in some cases, getting their whole family to vote no. This is really the beauty of canvassing: talking to individuals and breaking through the narratives about who your supporters and opponents are. 
  • Even in such an unradical campaign like Stop the Recall, there is still a lot of organizing muscle to exercise, like asking for commitment, staying upbeat and being personable as best as you can.
  • People express their pain points in many different ways. For example, claiming to “do [their] own research” is an expression of distrust in the media. Voting YES on the recall is a way to voice displeasure at how life has been during COVID. Seeing people’s choices as an expression of what hurts them makes the refusals a little easier to take.
  • For a large number of voters, not wanting a Republican governor is a valid reason to vote. What does all this mean for us as organizers? How can we leverage this in our struggle for liberation?

It’s sobering to find out that even within the realm of your supporters, people are lukewarm. My success rate with making volunteer recruitment calls is similar to that with voters, which is that having two or three solid, affirmative conversations per shift is a win. The best thing about recruitment calls is finding out what other supporters are working on. It makes you feel less alone in the change that you are trying to make. On the other hand, trying to get people to make calls can be a hard ask for that exact reason: It’s hard to feel hugely successful as a canvasser. Nonetheless, contact is best made one person at a time, and being honest and direct about what you are asking people to do is best.

Do not sugarcoat the canvassing experience for volunteers! The right people will join you. Even if we are small in numbers, we can build winning margins by ones, tens and hundreds at a time. 

For people who are invested and have the kind of temperament (aka thick skin and short memories) for canvassing, deep canvassing is a great option. Deep canvassing is a technique that grew out of the fight for marriage equality. In the aftermath of Prop 8 in 2008, the Los Angeles LGBT Center talked to voters who were against same sex marriage. They began by asking the voter an open-ended question, then connecting the voter’s story to the cause. It’s the most involved kind of canvassing, but also the most effective at shifting people, because the organizer’s job is to meet people where they are at. 

One of the deep canvassing campaigns I worked on was for the charter amendment in Minneapolis to replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety. I talked to two social workers who shared their uncertainty about the amendment and stories of working with the police. 

On the Stop the Recall campaign, I talked to a young voter who identified as apolitical and whose partner was undocumented. Helping him make a plan to vote and talking about what’s at stake for his family was very rewarding — the kind of one-in-hundreds conversations that justifies why we call at all. 

That said, phone banking is not for everyone. Getting refusals and aggression on the phone is hard. People tend to not see callers as real human beings because there’s no face to attach to the voice. It takes a kind of stamina to phonebank because you don’t get the kind of regenerative energy from an in-person action with a group of people.

As much as it can feel like pulling teeth, I will continue to make calls to the extent that I can. The fact is, politicians and elections are not going away anytime soon. And politicians are going to do the rewarding thing instead of the risky and right thing. To enact the change we want to see, we need to move people before or at the same time as we move politicians. 

From talking to people, I found that most are not nearly as radical as we would like them to be. This presents an opportunity for radical organizers to practice speaking plainly about the world we envision and what it would mean for people. For example, many people can’t picture what it would look like to take away power from the police, but they can describe the times they feel safe in their communities. A canvasser can start the conversation from there and plant a seed for abolition, even if it takes thirty conversations to get the person on our side. (Each canvasser is warming up a person for the next canvasser, who might then have more success.)

Once I got over my initial discomfort of cold-calling people, the applications of phone banking became vast. We don’t all have the funds for auto-dialing software or contact lists, but we do have phones and our voices. In a more radical version of the world, I would love to make calls to invite people to pop-up clinics and groceries in our neighborhoods, turn out people for a vigil, or talk to people who’ve been isolated. The most powerful thing about phone banking is cutting through mass media and helping people see that a real, living and breathing person supports this outcome and is investing time and risking rejection to talk to them about it. Most people respect that dedication, whether they are on board with us or not. 

In conclusion, phone banking is hard. It’s also a practice in persistence and invitation. It’s a great way to practice agitating and gently bugging people, one at a time, to join us.