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How Do You Respond To Sidewalk Activists?

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How Do You Respond To Sidewalk Activists?

How Do You Respond To Sidewalk Activists?

How Do You Respond To Sidewalk Activists?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Many city-dwellers have been stopped by activists who ask for a minute of time for a cause. And while some feel sympathetic, they usually keep walking. Dana Fisher, author of Activism, Inc., talks about what's in a day's work for a sidewalk activist.


So, you're on your way to the bank or to grab a sandwich for lunch when an earnest, young person asks: Do you have a minute for the environment or health care reform or gay rights? Do you have a minute to save the whales or starving children? Most of us just brush pass these sidewalk activists, even when they're sympathetic to the cause. And many of the canvassers wish they could walk away, too.

Today, we're going to talk about the frustrations on both sides of the clip board. When you're buttonholed, how do you respond? And if you've worked as a canvasser, tell us what these sidewalk conversations are like for you. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our Web site at Click on the TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Dana Fisher. She researched canvassing for her book "Activism Inc.," and also teaches sociology at Columbia University. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DANA FISHER (Sociology, Columbia University; Author): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And interestingly, you found that many of these people hired to do this work end up disillusioned.

Prof. FISHER: They certainly do. When I did this study in 2003, we looked at canvassers all over the country in six different research sites, and we ended up studying 115 canvassers. And while many of them really enjoyed the experience initially, they ended burned off - burned out, excuse me, and turned off to politics in the long term.

CONAN: And turned off to politics, which is why they got into this in the first place.

Prof. FISHER: Exactly.

CONAN: And how long does that process take, usually?

Prof. FISHER: It can take maximum three months. For some people, a few days.

CONAN: Three days?

Prof. FISHER: For some people, the process of becoming a canvasser involves a three-day training period. And from my accounts from canvassers whom I spoke with, only 40 percent of the people who come in the door to try out canvassing actually make it to that point.

CONAN: Well, they come in passionate about a cause. What happens during these training programs?

Prof. FISHER: Well, first thing that happens is they're told that they may or may not work on the specific cause that mobilized them in the first place. Many of them respond to posters put up all over college towns, college areas. And then what happens is they come in the doors and whoever is directing or doing the training for them says, you know, we actually need you to work on X campaign. And it's whatever campaign the office is running or the campaign that needs the people, because some offices run multiple campaigns at the same time.

So they may not work on the things that they're passionate about, but in addition to that, they come in and they're basically told the job is raising money on the street. So, some of them go door to door. Many of them stand on the street, doing street canvassing, which is what you were talking about before, where they're trying to stop people going back and forth to work and common public areas. And it's really difficult work.

So you have three days to try that out. And during that time, the canvassers are required to make what's called quota, which is a specific amount of money determined by the campaign they're working on. If they do not make the quota within three days, they are let go.

CONAN: And how much are they paid for this?

Prof. FISHER: It depends on the campaign. I don't have exact numbers because the organizations I studied did not want to show numbers with me. I can tell you accounts from, like, you know, the cohort of canvassers whom I studied, I was told that on bad days, the canvassers made three to $4 an hour.

CONAN: That's well below minimum wage. Here's an email we have from Jordan in Chicago: I worked as a sidewalk activist and the less appealing door-to-door activist during summers in college and one horrible winter break in Wisconsin. While the job was difficult and the hours were long, it gave me the skills necessary to succeed at grassroots organizing inside sales and business development. I wouldn't change my experience for the world.

Prof. FISHER: This is a common impression from people who have worked as canvassers. Many people find it a life-altering experience. In fact, I was a canvasser in college and I would say that today, I would not be working as a sociologist. I wouldn't be studying activism and environmental politics like I do had I not canvassed.

However, the problem is that we are the small few. And for many people who experienced canvassing, they end up leaving, having no interest in organizing, being burned out, turned off, disenchanted with the bureaucratic process, hating talking to strangers on the street, and many of them go law school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

At least, that's what my canvassers did.

CONAN: They went to law school. That's interesting. The - there is - I know in telephone sales, there's a script they want you to adhere to. Is that the same kind of a deal in either sidewalk activism or door-to-door?

Prof. FISHER: It's exactly the same. So, in fact, for the canvassers whom I studied, they were required to follow a verbatim script. And many of them told me that they were criticized if they deviated at all from the script. And some people told me it had been, quote, unquote, "focus grouped to death." So it was the perfect sales pitch.

CONAN: So that when somebody comes up to you and - do you have a minute to save starving children, that's a line that's been scripted by somebody. It is not necessarily the thing that they're, you know, that they - but they want to talk to you about it, right?

Prof. FISHER: Well, in some cases, they do. They're given a very limited amount of information about whatever campaign they're working on. So what ends up happening is they have a specific script. It takes maybe two minutes to get through it. But if you start to then ask questions about the campaign, in many cases, they won't be able to answer many details about it because they don't know very much.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an email from Katie in Oakland, California. I almost always answer the unsolicited questions by saying I'm already a supporter, member, donor, signer, etc. and keep walking. Half the time, it's true. The other half, I already know it's not, and know why. That's also got to be very discouraging. There are very few professions in which you're going to hear no more often.

Prof. FISHER: Well, yes. I mean, these canvassers end up going door-to-door, standing on the street for about five hours a day. On a good day, canvassers reported maybe signing up two people. They may end up, if they're lucky, having 30 conversations. And a conversation is defined by getting through the script. So it's an extremely discouraging job. It's a hard job. It's an exhausting job. And the difficulty here is these young people signed up not because they wanted to make a lot of money, because nobody makes a lot of money being a canvasser. They wanted to do something to make a difference in America.

CONAN: And it does - makes acting sound like a positive reinforcement. Anyway, let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Stephanie calling from Madison, Wisconsin. Go ahead, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

STEPHANIE: I have to tell you that I'm glad I'm listening to this show, because it's giving me the other view of canvassers. I tend to get really frustrated with them and I don't think organizations really - I think they should use some other method to raise money. But people out there, if you have young kids canvassing, especially, I have - my grandkids and their friends were on State Street, which is down by our university campus. And they were canvassing for a particular issue and they got rudeness. They got, you know, meanness, jokes. These are kids, okay? So come on, folks. Just think, these are future activists.

CONAN: These are future activists. So be kind to the kids and say no politely if you can.

STEPHANIE: Exactly. Thank you.

Prof. FISHER: I would just add, Stephanie, that these are potential activists and they're, you know, many - most of them are young people, so they have this wonderful idealism, but it can be crushed quite easily.


STEPHANIE: Yeah. Well, I - maybe it's got me to rethink how I'm going to deal with canvassers that come to my door at a particularly irritating time of the day. I'm going to be really kind to them. And I won't tell them that I think it's, you know - to encourage their activism. But I'm not - I just have a general rule of not donating to canvassers. I think it's a horrible way to make - to have to raise money.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE: Thank you. You bet.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

How - you're talking about how little these kids are paid and how much - this seems awfully inefficient. Does this actually raise money for any cause?

Prof. FISHER: Well, from what I understand, and I should just mention here, the organization was extremely private about any monetary information. So what I - most of the information I have was reported to me from the canvassers and the canvas directors whom I interviewed. But from what I understand, if an organization is lucky, it sustains itself in terms of covering the canvas. The goal of the canvas is to create this mailing list, which is useful for increasing donations over time and also for potentially doing, quote, unquote, "action alerts." But it's a list of people who are in specific congressional districts who might support, for example, health care reform, climate change, politics, those types of things.

CONAN: And sound, primarily, causes on the left.

Prof. FISHER: These are almost entirely causes on the left. In fact, in all my research, I have not found one right-leaning organization that uses canvassing as a method for outreach or for fundraising.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, Ron - Ron calling us from Amherst, New Hampshire.

RON (Caller): Hi. I worked for Florida Public Interest Research Group, and we were canvassing against the sugar industry. And basically, it was six of us versus, like, the entire sugar industry of the state of Florida for a couple ballot initiatives. And, of course, we got squashed like a bug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RON: Now, they actually pay their workers to go out for two weeks before the election and canvas. They - instead of coming to work, they had vans in the same neighborhoods that we were in, canvassing for their side on these ballot initiatives. And we lost both the ballot initiatives and, you know, that was it for me with politics.

CONAN: Yeah. So you were - there was a competitive situation, and you were outgunned?

RON: I mean, how can a few, you know, college kids being paid next to nothing compete against a huge industry like that?

CONAN: One of those people who got discouraged, Dana Fisher.

Prof. FISHER: Yeah. I would just say that these kinds of stories exist all over the country. And unfortunately, Ron, yours is not unique to the experience you had in Florida.

I mean, one of the problems here is that there is - there's a lot of difficulty for general American citizens to get involved in the policymaking process because of the way interests tend to express their influence in Washington, as well as in states and localities. And so what ends up happening is these public interest groups try to get general citizens involved, and the people who are most willing to get involved are young people, which is wonderful. But the question is how to get them involved in a meaningful way that doesn't exploit them and that doesn't burn them out and turn them off.

CONAN: Ron, thanks very much. And give it another try sometime. All right. This is an email from Marcus. Being located in the state capital of Florida, Tallahassee, I ran into many people who canvass. Often time, the people who are doing the work have very little information about what they're trying to get the signatures for.

For example, there's a campaign that's trying to put the issue of gerrymandering on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. I asked the person what they knew about what they are trying to end. And I received an explanation that was the equivalent to government is doing bad stuff. I just wish they knew more about what they were trying to raise support for. We're talking to Dana Fisher, who's the author of "Activism, Inc."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go talk to Sam, Sam, with us from Des Moines.

SAM (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Sam.

SAM: Everything Dana is saying is true, as far as it being a very difficult job for me. And it's been over 20 years since I knocked on my last door. But I canvassed for Citizen Action, and it was probably the most formative job of my life and shaped me for the rest of my life.

And I - it's hard. It's hard working it. It's certainly not for everybody. But for those of us who can do it, it really - it's - there's nothing I would trade for it.

CONAN: Hmm. There in Des Moines, you're also accustomed to people coming in -young people from buses all around the country every four years to get people -to try to convince people to go vote for their candidate in the caucuses there. Are these the same kind of people, Sam, or different?

SAM: Well, actually, the way it worked with us, I was with Iowa Citizen Action Network. And since we canvassed every night and we were professional doorknockers and professional fundraisers - candidates, and while we were technically nonpartisan, certainly our politics leaned left, so mostly it was from the Democratic Party would hire us to help them do their campaigns.

So they would actually - when every four years would come around or every two years, or oftentimes, it was with more local state elections - they would ask us if we'd endorse them and then we would - along, we've incorporate endorsing them with whatever issues we were fundraising for our own cause.

CONAN: Piggybacking.

SAM: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: All right. All right. That's very interesting, Sam. Thanks very much. And like you, Dana, he's somebody who benefited from his experience, he thinks.

Prof. FISHER: Yes, and it's wonderful for those people. I mean, I think one of my biggest critiques here of the process of canvassing in the United States is that it's one of the very few channels young people have who want to get into politics, to start with a paying job, so that people like Sam, people like me, people like the many others who have found this to be a perfect experience for their first experience in politics, there's nothing wrong with that.

But the problem is there are so many other people, like the other people who've called in, who found it to be a really disheartening experience. And they probably would have preferred to have some other entree into politics. And perhaps then, they would still be working in politics today.

CONAN: Melanie emails: I have to say I'm not impressed with canvassers in Boston. I found in most big cities that, by and large, they're polite and friendly, but a select few still manage to ruin their reputations.

I've had canvassers make fun of my appearance, joked to their fellow canvasser about me, and in general be rude and intrusive. How can this be productive? All it proves to me is that far from being an organization in need, they're an organization that has money to throw away on inexperienced, impolite employees. Plus, they have no idea how much money, time people give to other charities. They have no right to guilt-trip people as a sales pitch.

I would guess that that's a fairly small minority. Another one from Boston, this is from Joe. Cross the street, no chance. I wait to hear what they're selling and take it as a challenge to come up with an unexpected retort. My best so far came in response to a Greenpeace plea to save the polar bears. The undergrad with the clipboard did not know how to respond when I told him I was not inclined to help, as a polar bear had killed my brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This becomes sport at some level. Let's see if we can go next to Roger, Roger from Royal Oak in Michigan.

ROGER (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air, Roger. Go ahead.

ROGER: Well, I'm a - personally, I worked for a company called Public Interest Research Group in Michigan.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: And one aspect, when you're getting involved in these canvassing operations that I never really would have been aware of, is that they're run kind of like a multilevel marketing scheme. And, like, my boss would make money off anything that I got in donations. And eventually, down the line, they stop paying me, in particular.

So this was kind of a bad experience in my - for me, and eventually, I became part of a class action lawsuit against this group, Public Interest Research Group in Michigan.

So even though I really believed in the causes - and a lot of times we weren't allowed - you know, we weren't granted the causes that we would like to work on - it was, in my opinion, a good thing to do. But the company - or I don't know if the company or organization - just did take advantage a lot of canvassers and did not pay them.

CONAN: And didn't pay them, which I guess adds up to fraud on some level.

ROGER: Yeah. There was - they never got any criminal charges, but they did have a - they was a class action, I think - something like 100, 150 people. I didn't have much to do with any of the legal part of it, but I did, you know, sign a document claiming my grievances and…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: …eventually - I haven't gotten paid yet, but I await that, hopefully.

Prof. FISHER: The lawsuit actually did settle.

ROGER: They did? So you know about that.

Prof. FISHER: Yes, of course.

ROGER: Oh, okay. So…

CONAN: There's a check in the mail.

ROGER: I don't know. Well, that sound - that's great news.

CONAN: I'm not sure that last part is accurate, Roger.

ROGER: Okay.

CONAN: Good luck.

ROGER: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. What did they settle for?

Prof. FISHER: They settled for a couple million dollars. I don't have the number here. This was outside of the realm of what I studied. But there is -there were a couple hundred people who actually came forward and were complaining about pay and labor practices, I believe. And the lawsuit settled -I think it was two years ago.


Prof. FISHER: So, I'm not sure if Roger is going to have money coming to him. I'm not sure what role he played.

CONAN: Well, maybe the check is in the mail. But we have to apologize to everybody who called in. We're sorry we could not get everybody on the air - on their emails, either. Dana Fisher, thanks very much for your time.

Prof. FISHER: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Dana Fisher teaches sociology at Columbia, the author of the book "Activism, Inc."

Tomorrow: the liar in your life - an expert on deception, about how and why we lie. Join us then. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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