This past spring, deep canvassers at the New Jersey Resource Project (NJRP) launched a the initial steps of building a script for a climate deep canvassing campaign to talk to residents in Lacey, a shore town in Ocean County New Jersey, about  offshore wind energy as well as learn what community benefits, such as property tax subsidies or money for schools, residents would be most interested in advocating for.

“I was so fearful about talking to residents,” said Jody Stewart, a canvasser and the Organizing Director at NJRP. “We came into this preparing to be met with radical opposition on the doors based on what we were seeing online and our experience being in spaces with anti offshore wind advocates.” Anti-offshore wind advocates have spread disinformation about offshore wind turbines being responsible for whale deaths.

Jody was one of the early organizers with NJRP. The organization started to ensure recovery support for Superstorm Sandy survivors and won campaigns like the Sandy Mortgage Recovery Bill. After successfully winning recovery initiatives, the group expanded their focus to exploring how to mitigate future climate related disasters.

“I saw a report that showed areas in New Jersey that would be underwater in the future if we don’t move toward cleaner energy and my house was on the map” Jody exclaimed.

“This effort is not just about shore towns,” said Shiloh Estacio-Touhey, who is leading the climate deep canvass campaign. “There are communities all over New Jersey feeling the effects of the fossil fuels industry. Cancer and asthma rates are soaring. We want to help NJ be healthy and strong.”

Cameron Foster, a deep canvasser on this campaign, shared a story about how he was able to have a vulnerable conversation with a resident who was initially agitated by his purpose for being at their door.

The resident’s wife answered the door and when Cameron said that he was in the community talking to residents about offshore wind, she said she didn’t know anything about it but he should talk to her husband. 

When the husband came to talk to Cameron, he said, “You shouldn’t be talking to people if you don’t know what you are talking about! This is a topic for experts!”

Cameron took a breath and responded, “You are the expert. How long have you lived in this community?”

Cameron learned that he had lived in the community for more than two decades and that he was an electrician at the former nuclear plant. He also shared that he wanted Lacey to be a booming town again, like it was with the nuclear plant but is hoping it would be converted to a hydrogen plant. He then began to tell Cameron that he wanted to be a part of any formal talks concerning community benefits and made suggestions about other people Cameron should talk to.

“I don’t think I changed his mind about offshore wind in the end but it was a relief to find that I can have a conversation with someone on a polarizing topic and still feel a sense of connection.”

The entire canvassing team expressed similar sentiments about having surprisingly good conversations at the door whether they were able to get support or not. Also – they found that the common ground was that they all want what is best for the environment as well as community benefits, regardless of which renewable energy source is ultimately implemented.

The team at NJRP feels they are off to a good start and they’re committed to staying on the doors and in conversation with their community. They started with about eight canvassers and over the course of a few weeks, they were able to talk to almost 350 residents,  conversations that were critical to helping them to better understand the community’s fear, concerns and hopes.

This isn’t only happening in New Jersey. Five hundred miles up the coast the people of Searsport Maine are in a heated controversy over whether to allow the construction of a port for the off shore wind industry in the town’s harbor. Since February a team at Maine People’s Resource Center have been on the doors, developing a deep canvass strategy to build support for the urgently needed project. Their kryptonite: the port has to be built in part of a beloved local wildlife area. 

At door after door, upset residents have told canvassers “I know people are going to call me a NIMBY but…” The more the team listened the more they realized – they could exploit that NIMBY moment to try to diminish people’s concerns. Or they could try a different path. They could say “You know, no. I don’t think you’re ‘just being a NIMBY’. This is a big, significant impact we’re talking about and you’re right to have strong feelings about it. Even if we don’t agree, I want to understand better.” 

As counterintuitive as this felt, Logan Massara, the project’s lead, described the way people would respond: “When we say those words, the way people’s body language, tone and expression change is remarkable. We can watch people physically open up and suddenly feel free to talk about their deeper feelings.”  By inviting people to talk about the hard thing, a different conversation is proving possible. 

Stories like these reinforce how deep canvassing helps us navigate difficult conversations with people we may not agree with by being empathetic and curious. The first step to learning how to build an effective, persuasive deep canvass program is learning how to listen with new ears. Like the person Cameron spoke to at the door who went from agitated to wanting to stay engaged in the conversation and connect Cameron with others to talk to, we build connections through conversations. Talking to our neighbors is how we win the future we deserve.

We want to thank the NJRP and MPA teams for their courageous efforts!

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