In our current political climate, it’s as though people are more polarized than ever before. One of the most contentious issues during the 2016 presidential election, and still today, is the topic of Planned Parenthood.
As Planned Parenthood centers continue to close throughout the U.S. and funding is threatened under the new administration, canvassers hitting the streets on behalf of Planned Parenthood are more important than ever. My close friend Nina is one of these canvassers, and after a few weeks raising money on behalf of Planned Parenthood, she had so much to share. In this interview, Nina explains why she became a canvasser, the biggest misconceptions, and why we must continue to fight to maintain the rights those before us struggled so long to obtain.
Can you explain what a canvasser is and their purpose for those who don’t know?
A canvasser is a paid fundraiser who solicits donations on the street, over the phone or door to door. It is important to know that canvassers are not employed directly by the groups they are fundraising for (i.e. Planned Parenthood). Instead, canvassers are employed by an intermediary fundraising agency who then assigns individuals to work on a particular campaign. I would therefore like to emphasize that in no way do I wish to speak on behalf of Planned Parenthood, just on my own experiences.
Why did you become a canvasser?
I became a canvasser because I just graduated from a big university with a degree in political science. One of the biggest challenges inherent to political work is learning how to communicate effectively with individuals who may not share the same position as you on sensitive issues. This is something I have struggled with for a while, and it is not something I learned to overcome in crowded lecture halls where I sat in the back and avoided speaking up. So, when I was offered a canvassing job, I took it mainly because I saw it as an opportunity to throw myself into an environment where I would be forced to develop these communication skills.
Why canvass for Planned Parenthood specifically?
I wanted to canvass for Planned Parenthood specifically because I think a woman’s right to choose is something our generation takes for granted. I always knew reproductive healthcare was important but it was not something I felt compelled to rally for until I personally needed access to Planned Parenthood services this year. Through this experience, I realized how uninformed I was about the range of services that Planned Parenthood provides and the lack of alternatives women would have if Planned Parenthood was not out there. In the face of this administration, we can’t afford to take for granted what previous generations fought for.
After this experience, what do you want people to know about Planned Parenthood? What do you think are some of the greatest misconceptions?
There are two main statistics that we use to get donations that always shock people on the street: first, abortion services are only 3% of the services Planned Parenthood provides. One of the biggest misconceptions about planned parenthood is that you cannot support Planned Parenthood without being pro-choice. THIS IS WRONG. Most of the services Planned Parenthood provides have nothing to do with abortion at all! Planned Parenthood provides affordable contraception, STI testing, and cancer screening as well as many other reproductive healthcare services to over 60% of women under the poverty line.
Secondly, 1 in 11 men go to Planned Parenthood, so it’s not just a question of women’s rights. I’ve had numerous men come up to me while canvassing and tell me about their experiences at Planned Parenthood. For example, a lot of men get vasectomies done at Planned Parenthood!
When approaching people who don’t agree with Planned Parenthood, how do you interact with them? What are their reasons for not supporting planned parenthood?
Canvassing was such a humbling and meaningful experience for me exactly because it brought my own misconceptions to light. Most of the non-supporters we interact with just tell us kindly that they do not believe in Planned Parenthood. I was surprised by how many were willing to have a calm conversation, and how many people would actually hear me out before telling me they didn’t support. I have to admit that I went into this job expecting most of the non-supporters I interact with to be crazy, in-your-face fanatics, when in reality that was not at all the case. This renewed not only my faith in humanity, but my hope that we can learn to have more constructive bipartisan dialogues in the future.
Religion is definitely the number one reason people have for not supporting planned parenthood but it’s not the only reason. For example, one guy came up to me and told me how he used to be pro-choice until his son’s girlfriend got pregnant at age 21. He urged them to terminate the pregnancy, claiming they were too young to have kids but she refused for religious reasons. He says now his grandson is five years old and he can’t imagine life without him.
Planned Parenthood is a contentious organization in the US. Because of that, did people ever treat you poorly while out canvassing?
“Fuck you” or “fuck off” is something I heard almost daily. There’s a decent amount of non-supporters who go out of their way to make negative or sarcastic comments, but only a handful of people take the time to actively harass us.
The worst experience I’ve had was when one guy started following me and my coworker down the street. Initially he came up to me and asked me why his tax dollars should go to abortion (which they don’t – no federal tax money goes to Planned Parenthood). We have a very strict protocol on how to deal with aggressive non-supporters; we’re supposed to calmly tell them that we’re not out here to debate, that we are just out here to identify supporters. I was warned during my training that there are people out there who are trying to provoke us and film us saying something ridiculous that could hurt Planned Parenthood. In no way are we supposed to engage with non-supporters of this type, but it takes a lot more self-control than you would think.
However, one of the most memorable interactions I’ve had with a non-supporter wasn’t aggressive at all. This guy was just a little off his rocker, and he claimed that “all the white people should leave the U.S. and go back to ‘Caucasia.’” I tried really hard not laugh, and I had to hold myself back from asking him if I had missed a geography lesson in school or something.
Given the negative encounters, what kept you committed to Planned Parenthood?
For all the negative encounters we have canvassing for Planned Parenthood, we have just as many positive encounters. Planned Parenthood supporters always appreciate our dedication to the cause and they definitely go out of their way to make sure we know that! People are so willing to share their personal stories and that’s definitely my favorite part. Suddenly, people are letting you in on really personal aspects of their lives that would be considered “taboo” in any other setting. One woman came up to me and told me she wanted to donate because Planned Parenthood was the only healthcare provider that would give her an IUD after the elections this year.
Another thing I love about canvassing is witnessing the growing activism of younger generations. Surprisingly, the people who stopped the most (for me at least) were university students just like me!
What would you say to the people who see canvassers like you on the street? What do you want them to know?
We are on our feet standing on the same corner for 6-7 hours a day, so smile or stop just to have a quick conversation at the very least! I can’t tell you how much it helps just to have someone say “thank you for what you’re doing” as they walk past us. The worst thing is when people just ignore us and pretend we’re not there, we’re human beings too you know!
I definitely would not have had such a positive and enriching experience without my amazing coworkers. Canvassing is really demanding, both emotionally and physically, and the relationships we form amongst ourselves are so deep because we’re all going through this experience together. But people are so encouraging and supportive, at the end of the day you feel good no matter what.