It’s a provocative conversation that can feel off-limits with friends, neighbors and co-workers, let alone a stranger knocking on your front door in Twin Cities suburbia.
But in a state with some of the worst racial disparities in the country, it’s a discussion more people — especially white Minnesotans — need to be having, say leaders and volunteers with Jewish Community Action.
They query residents with questions like these: “How much do you think people of color are discriminated against today on a 1 to 10 scale? How do you reach that number?” “Has there ever been a time where you felt you were treated unfairly because of how you were perceived?”
Outfitted with clipboards and courage, Jewish Community Action volunteers and staff are fanning out into suburban Twin Cities neighborhoods and starting personal conversations about race. They share their own stories of feeling “other” because of their gender, race, sexual orientation or faith.
It’s called “deep canvassing” and it’s the newest tool for social justice groups intent on moving the needle on issues of race, gay rights, even environmental causes.
Jewish Community Action, a social justice nonprofit formed in 1995, started deep canvassing around racism last spring after a demoralizing legislative session in which they saw little success with their bills and lobbying efforts, said executive director Carin Mrotz.
“We wondered where can we have some actual wins? Where can we make a difference in a tangible way?” Mrotz said.
The group decided if it couldn’t make headway with lawmakers, it would turn its attention to the voters who elected them.
“Social justice is considered one of the major tenets of Jewish life … really going all the way back to the Exodus. That is the heart space where Jewish Community Action was founded,” Mrotz said.
The core belief motivating JCA’s deep canvas: Racism is an oppressive system created by people, so it can also be corrected by people.
The JCA is knocking on doors of registered voters in suburban neighborhoods.
Instead of a rehearsed blast of persuasion directed at the person answering the door, canvassers spend more time listening than talking. They ask people to rate racism on a 10-point scale, then follow up with open-ended questions about personal experiences or the experiences of friends and family.
“It’s less of a debate and more of a conversation,” said JCA community organizer Rachel English.
The goal is to gently expand the heart-to-heart conversation from personal to one that acknowledges systemic and structural racism that hurts individuals, families and communities. The conversations can last 10 to 20 minutes and wrap up with the canvasser again asking the person to rate the effects of racism.
Sometimes people change their rating just based on that conversation, Mrotz said.
“People say, ‘Now that I’ve spent time thinking about it, I realize it’s bigger than I thought it was,’ ” Mrotz said.
Months later, JCA will call people they’ve spoken with during their canvasses and they’ll ask them to rate racism for a third time.
“That’s where the most interesting stuff happens,” Mrotz said. After being canvassed, a few people have actually joined the efforts, she said.
Volunteer canvasser Vic Rosenthal said he hopes the effort will open minds.
“It’s a conversation that doesn’t happen very often,” Rosenthal said. “For people of color, they have these conversations all the time because they feel it every day. For most white people, to bring it up is to bring up something that is not comfortable to talk about. But I believe that is how you change things.”
California gay rights advocates developed deep canvassing in 2008 after voters passed Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in the state. Research by a Stanford professor has shown deep canvassing holds some promise.
Mrotz said ending racism isn’t just a moral imperative, it will improve how we live.
“We have better, more fulfilling lives when we know people who are different from us and have relationships with people who are different from us,” she said.