At the end of 2017, I had two goals for my political involvement: 1) make an impact on the 2018 midterm elections and 2) figure out what I wanted to do in 2020.
I had done very little campaign volunteering before, so I started by researching my options. I considered skills-based volunteering like Tech for Campaigns and Get Her Elected and general public volunteering like Swing Left and Sister District Project. I talked to friends who had worked with campaigns, either paid or unpaid, for different spans of time, and I tried to picture myself in each of these scenarios.
By June, primary season was underway and everything still felt very abstract. In order to narrow my options, I looked up the extended time off and political activity policies at my workplace. After talking it over with my manager, I decided to request several weeks of unpaid time off instead of taking personal leave. Situations will vary greatly here; things I looked at included stock vesting schedules, health insurance coverage, and other possible interruptions in benefits.
After mulling over my goals for another few months, I decided that if they were in tension with each other, I wanted to prioritize exploration over efficacy. Even if it turned out that I was bad at some common volunteer roles, this season was my chance to give them a try before signing up for a more serious commitment. There were also a lot of different causes that I wanted to support, so in the end, I ended up doing five different things for the 2018 midterms: two district supervisor races for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, one San Francisco ballot proposition, one Arizona Senate race, and a general collection of races in the Pittsburgh area.
Thanks to spreading out my involvement, I think I had less of an impact. However, seeing different campaigns at work taught me a lot about what I want my own role to be. I canvassed with a candidate, with a volunteer buddy, and alone; I phone banked and text banked my own city as well as places I’d never been; and I worked behind the scenes in campaign offices, doing data entry and sorting papers. (By the way, data entry was quite the slog while suffering from untreated RSI. I highly recommend getting your health problems fixed to whatever extent you can.)
Some of the things I learned didn’t surprise me. For example, text banking drove me up the wall because I was responsible for replying to things within 20-30 minutes. My usual relationship to mobile devices is to turn off all sound and vibration and if I don’t see a notification, oh well, it can wait. Canvassing was nerve-wracking in neighborhoods where people owned dogs because many dogs are reactive to doorbells, even if they aren’t actually aggressive. I’m scared of most unknown / untrusted dogs, so barking and lunging triggers a racing heart and other issues for me. I dealt with this by carrying an anti-anxiety zine in my wallet (not this particular self-help zine, but it also featured relaxation techniques and a hand-drawn aesthetic) and going through the exercises after I retreated from a particularly scary dog.
There were other things that came up for me that made this entire experiment feel worthwhile: I learned something new about the way I want to work and I knew how I’d apply it to future volunteering decisions. The biggest thing was probably the energy difference between canvassing, phone banking, and text banking. I found text banking incredibly unrewarding because the receptive people weren’t as chatty as they would be in person. At the same time, it was also stressful because the irritated people were much more aggressive, frequently swearing at me. Although I never felt like they were criticizing me since they obviously didn’t know me, I still felt the burden of keeping my mouth shut and being polite, since I had to represent the campaign and not just myself. In contrast, canvassing was really energizing. Most times that I went out, even if it was just for an hour, I met people who were interested in what I had to say and people who thanked me for showing up and fighting for something I cared about. People who didn’t want to talk to me would simply decline to answer their door; they didn’t open the door to yell in my face.
However, if it hadn’t been for my RSI, I think my favorite thing would have been data entry and other miscellaneous tasks in a campaign office. That’s because volunteering at the same office repeatedly means that you get to know the other people there. It’s inspiring to meet people from different walks of life and hear about what moved them to get involved. It’s also much easier to see the results of your work: you started with this large stack of paper, and after two hours of waving a barcode scanner or typing on a laptop, the stack is almost gone and the voter tracking tool is now up to date, ready to empower more canvassers, phone bankers, and text bankers to do their jobs effectively.
I went into the 2018 midterm elections with almost no volunteer experience (one day of GOTV in 2008 and less than an hour of phone banking in 2016 is all I can remember) and a very hazy idea of how I could possibly change that. I don’t have an exact outline for 2020 yet, but I know what’s important to me, and that gives me a framework for making my decision when the time comes.
Some of the things that came up for me when reflecting on my 2018 experiences:
- Take some time off from work. It can be exhausting to canvass all day long, even if you’re fairly accustomed to talking to people and walking through cities. That said, taking an entire week off at a time is probably unnecessary unless you’re performing a more specialized role. Very little canvassing happens during the week until the last weekend.
- Look for roles that involve talking to people. Talking to fellow volunteers is great; so is talking to voters. Talking to people reassures you that you aren’t alone and makes challenges feel more surmountable.
- Think about where you want to live and how you want the rest of your life to look. Do you want to sleep in your own bed? Do you want to have non-politics friends around to hang out with on your days off? One tradeoff of staying at home is that it’s hard to get away from normal responsibilities, which can be distracting, but it’s easy to stay in normal routines, which means that basic things like eating the right food and getting enough sleep are easier.