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Canvassing for Obama was a learning experience



Last week, I spent a day canvassing a Charlotte neighborhood in support of Sen. Barack Obama. Yes, cynical, critical Nsenga who dared never to canvass a neighborhood in support of anything other than finding a missing pet or child, put one foot in front of the other and "Baracked the Vote!"

I must admit that it was a wonderful experience. Before arriving, I had already informed that I absolutely would not canvass. Why? Simply because people are crazy. Yes, the woman who travels around the world alone most of the time is afraid to knock on the door of a stranger.

I was not going to be walking up to people's houses and talking to strangers about voting for someone I don't even know like that. I'm always in awe when people talk about Obama or any presidential candidate as if they have a personal relationship with him or her. I read his books. I know his platform and his media-constructed image, but I don't know him well enough to put myself at risk. But I digress.

The person on the other end of the phone from tried to cajole me into agreeing to canvass, even suggesting a couple of hours on a Saturday in my own neighborhood. I explained to him that this strategy would not work in my neighborhood because folks were trained not to answer knocks on the door on Saturday mornings because they assumed the knocks were from Jehovah's Witnesses. I chuckled at my poor attempt at humor. He didn't. He then suggested a weekday. I flat-out stated that I would do anything except that because, you know, people are crazy. So, I agreed to make phone calls instead.

When I showed up for my assignment, a lovely older woman with a warm smile greeted me at the door. There was another lady named Debbie who was also there to make phone calls. The campaign volunteer asked if we would canvass a neighborhood. We both were like, "No."

Why? Because people are crazy.

What was funny is that Debbie and I appeared to be complete opposites, but we clearly had some things in common. We both had participated in early voting, we both voted for Obama, we both were with, and neither of us wanted to canvass neighborhoods.

The lovely lady with the warm smile put us in touch with a field manager. Taylor informed us that they did not need anyone else to make phone calls or to enter data. They needed people to go door-to-door, inform people of early voting, and to encourage them to get out and vote. He assured us that it would be a "safe" neighborhood, so we relented.

I've got to say, canvassing neighborhoods was a great experience. We met different types of people. We tried to guess if a house was an Obama house or a McCain house before we knocked. How could we guess? We looked at the style of the house, décor, stickers in the window and even light bulbs. Light bulbs? If they had energy-efficient light bulbs, we bet on Obama. We learned what we already knew but rarely practice: You can never judge a book by its cover.

One young, vibrant Latina was way pro-McCain, and a gruff lawyer who appeared to be stiff and a bit of a curmudgeon was way pro-Obama. He had the man as his screen saver and turned out to be a lot of fun. Then there were the "Undecideds," who all looked young, energetic and seemed really laid-back and cool. I found it very rewarding chatting people up and really seeing just how different people who live in close proximity -- even next door to one another -- are and conversely, how similar folks are.

What was even more interesting was that Debbie and I made a great team. She's a Yoga and meditation instructor. I study Buddhism and practice meditation. While canvassing, she was friendly and conversational with folks, while I took the more direct approach like asking point-blank, "Whom are you voting for?" She would walk straight up to the door and knock confidently while I hung back a little just in case we needed to break out.

She grew up in Los Angeles and Boston. I moved here from Los Angeles and spent lots of time in Boston visiting my sister at Wellesley College and one of my best friends at Harvard. I am single, black and in my thirties. She is married, white and a mother of three who just turned 50. We enjoyed the experience so much that we're doing it again next week, together.

Just when I think I know it all, I learn something new. As cruddy as politics can be, there is value in getting involved in the political process. Sometimes that means literally stepping outside of yourself and trying something new -- like canvassing a neighborhood, one step at a time.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for

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