DCI Program Manager, Heather Schmucker had the chance to sit down with Mel Moore, a South Carolina-based organizer and founder of Grassroots Influencing the South (GRITS) about their experience as a participant in the DCI’s 301 Train the Trainer program this past March and to learn more about the work they’re doing in their home state. 

Let’s start by having you tell me a little bit about your background and your experience coming into the training.

I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina and decided to stay in the state because I had really good mentors and they helped me see the value of the South. I was blessed with that. So I got my start in advocacy, working on the Fairness for All Families campaign in the early aughts, then as executive assistant to the director of Alliance for Full Acceptance, a queer advocacy org in Charleston. And then from there, I kind of got lured over to work for South Carolina Equality Coalition, the organization that was backboning all the statewide LGBTQ+ coalition work and running the campaign to defeat a constitutional amendment that would ban same-gender marriage and enshrine that in our state constitution.

So, we knew we were going to probably lose that —  but we lost forward. And that kind of taught me that sometimes when they do their worst to you and they pick on you, it’s actually a blessing in disguise, because so many people came out of the closet and it caused others to realize – “People I love are gay. Maybe they’re not the villains that we thought.” And so It really kind of put a face on our community. It was hateful as hell and violent, but on the other side of that was recognition for our community, representation for our community.

At the end of that campaign, I ended up working for an organization called Abortion Access Project, an organization now known as Provide. Following that, I worked in organizations that provided direct service to LGBTQ+ young people struggling with houselessness and ultimately landed with WREN, Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, fighting for gender justice where I built their first-ever grassroots organizing program for the organization.

Now, I’m running my own business called Grassroots Influencing the South (GRITS) and I’m doing all kinds of wild work there. Deeply nerding out on projects like a broadband strategic plan for low-income communities for our state and a restorative justice initiative to build a plan that has collective care woven into a deep canvass program.

Deep canvassing to me is transformative justice. It is restorative justice. It’s walking with people and trusting that, given the opportunity to process their conflicted feelings, they’ll make better choices and become grounded in less harmful beliefs. 

You talk about deep canvassing as a restorative justice practice. I’m curious, what was your first experience with deep canvassing? How did it come into your life? What was it that really drew you to the practice? 

I’m an organizing nerd and when I worked for Women’s Rights Empowerment Network, the organization was built around legislative advocacy. There wasn’t a real organizing department and I knew that we needed campaigns, and to do that we need people phone-banking, out in community, in the districts organizing. We need to be knocking doors, talking to people to get them involved because, otherwise, they are apathetic. There’s so much noise to cut through. 

So, I was researching all these different tools and – I’m a member of the trans community – in South Carolina, the trans community is very maligned. I came across the original case study about deep canvassing around transgender justice. And the tactic really stood out to me. I’ve been obsessed with it since then and was trying to build the capacity to do our own deep canvass program in anticipation of really bad anti-trans laws that are coming. As I learned more, I also learned more about deep canvassing to reduce abortion stigma and those are two very hot button issues that the organization I was working for at the time was focusing on. I fell in love with it and then just started nerding out on it to try and see what we could do.

I feel like I probably was a thorn in the side of Deep Canvass Institute for a while because I think I sent some emails I was like how do I do this like how do we get involved and then I signed up for some introductory trainings – the 101 and 201 –and I finally made it into the 301 Train the Trainers cohort which was transformative.

That’s a great segue. (Also, you were not at all a thorn in our side!) I’d love to know more about what your experience was like attending the Training for Trainers and what drew you to it. 

So, I really wanted to learn from the people who were like the experts in the tactic because what I was doing was reading about it and trying to construct our own training because, essentially the three core skills of deep canvassing –active listening, motivational interviewing (compassionate curiosity) and storytelling are skills I know about as a direct service provider working in mental health support services. I tried to apply what I already knew about training others on how to do that empathetic listening. And I feel like what we put together was decent enough but I didn’t feel like I was experienced enough to be really preparing people for what deep canvassing was going to be like.

So, getting into the 301 Train the Trainers cohort was so helpful because the way that it is broken down, it’s elegant. I want to say it’s simple, but I don’t want to overly simplify it.

It’s elegant, it’s intricate, but it’s presented in a way that’s digestible. The energy is so high and there’s such a great curriculum and opportunity for everyone to practice. I love the way the training was laid out and definitely refined what I was doing based on the content of the training.

The production value was just impeccable. I really appreciated how the trainers are good at bringing everyone in and you know meeting people where they’re at.

I also really appreciated, too, that autistic folks were also trainers and deep canvass experts, because I think that people write neuro-spicy folks off as, you know, incapable of this type of thing, and lo and behold, we can do it. I appreciated how I could see myself reflected in the training team. I saw trans people. I saw trainers representing all kinds of different communities. 

Thank you so much for sharing that. I’m curious, can you talk a little bit more about what your experience was like the first day you got to actually train during the session? What was that experience like for you? 

Practicing felt really safe. So I can tell you that coming into it, I felt intimidated. I didn’t know how well I was going to do.  I figured everybody else is gonna be so much better than I was at it.

But coming into the training environment, everyone was so supportive and kind. And I feel like everyone’s so stressed out these days. We have been at each other’s throats. So, it was really a welcome feeling of safety and one that I haven’t felt in organizing in a little bit. It felt like a soft place to be able to sharpen the skill.

I love that you’re describing it this way because it’s very much the ethic behind what we were wanting to accomplish. Can I ask – what from all of your deep canvass training are you taking forward into the work? 

I think really taking the opportunity to slow down, to listen more. It’s really helped me kind of cut through the noise in my own head and let go of my own filters when people are telling me their stories. The compassionate curiosity exercise I think is helpful to look for that nugget of a story because everybody has one, and then finding that heart-to-heart connection. I’ve written up a plan for the next phase of the deep canvass work that I’m hoping to get funded. 

Outside of a formal deep canvass, I’ve been doing lots of voter outreach. I’ve been talking to people across all kinds of different political beliefs and affiliations. And, I found that by practicing compassionate curiosity and storytelling, that I’ve been able to connect with people I never thought I would. I’ve been talking to everyone from deep MAGA Republicans to the most radically leftist people. And, I’m finding that everyone, at the end of the day, wants the material conditions of their lives to improve, to be better. I can connect with that no matter what’s going on, no matter what people’s beliefs are. So, I can listen to that, I can hear that, I can validate that and then come back with my own story about the way that I feel and why. 

It’s offered the chance for me to be in community with folks, people who would normally look at me as a trans person, people who think that they are anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-liberal but come to find out we’ve been able to create some community across difference. 

So much of what you’re saying resonates with me around this idea that we are so polarized and far apart on so many things. But the thing that’s common – and what I’m hearing you share – is that people want space to connect, they want space to try to understand one another more than we give all sides credit for. Going back to something you shared earlier, I’d love to hear more about the work you’re dreaming up in South Carolina around the collective care project. Where and how does deep canvassing fit into that and where are you in its development?

So in South Carolina, we’re dealing with a lot of fear inside the hearts of the people about maligned communities like the transgender community that have been systematically painted as a villain but who honestly have no power to hurt anyone. Our vision is to develop and implement a comprehensive community care and safety initiative in South Carolina, including conducting a deep canvass program to help reduce anti-transgender bias among the South Carolina electorate. We need to be having year-round conversations with the community, not just conversations with them when we need their votes. We want to create connections and get folks from their own communities talking to others in those same communities. I want to find people who have been where others are now in their anti-trans beliefs and have moved past it, have evolved out of that thinking. I would love for them to talk to each other and create models where community validators are talking to members of their own communities about the evolution of their feelings and beliefs. 

In addition to that, the project really recognizes that deep canvassing can be a draining tactic. It takes a lot of emotional labor to try and change hearts and minds one door at a time. So, I feel like it’s really important to also wrap care around that because, in so many advocacy spaces and organizing spaces, we have an end goal. We have a conversation target. We’re trying to get deliverables done for a grant. But really the real work to me is care. And deep canvassing to me is rooted in empathy and care. We have to care for the people actually knocking the doors. We have to have a plan to offer softness, safety, and support for them. Our plan incorporates mental health support, both in the professional mental health sphere and training up peers to bear witness and offer support to each other. 

We’re also planning to train up street medics as a form of ongoing mutual aid because, every time we’re out, it’s hot as hell in South Carolina. We would also like to incorporate restorative justice circles like healing circles as a form of debrief, so that every person involved can bring their own culture in. And finally, having third space opportunities to create some kind of joy – music, dance, teachings, like, hey, let’s learn how to grow edible gardens. Let’s learn how to do a live digital collage together, make art together, have food together.  Ultimately, the plan that we have is a 360-degree organizing plan.

Right now, so many people in movement spaces are getting burned out. And so many relationships are just disintegrating around all the stress and trauma of the moment. We are not being sustained. It’s important for those who are doing the work to be nurtured and have softness in the work and a sense of community.

That piece around collective care is so much what continues to live in me as I learn more and more about the work you’re dreaming up. How do we encounter the people we’re working together in the fullness of who they are, right? It’s such a beautiful vision. 

As we wrap up, is there anything you would say to folks who might be reading this newsletter and thinking about taking a deep canvas training or might have heard something about deep canvassing and they’re curious. What would you say to those folks who might be looking to jump into deep canvassing or take a training with the DCI? 

I would say jump in and you’re going to be nervous but just do it because it’ll be validating and it’s worth it. And also be patient because this work will take years. Our political conditions didn’t fall upon us in a day. So it’s gonna take years to gain ground again, but it’s worth it. I just want us all to be brave and not lose hope. Hope is what keeps us going. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *