“Hello, my name is Tim Schwantes. I’m a college student who was recently talking with your neighbors about these educational books for school-aged kids. They were really interested in hearing more about how they could help their kids after they got home from school…”
This was the beginning of the door-to-door sales presentation I said over 6,000 times during my freshman and sophomore summers. That’s right. I was a door-to-door salesman to help pay my way through college. I knocked on about 30 doors a day and worked an average of 80 hours a week. What may sound like a crazy job to some people (I often hear “Really?! Door-to-door sales?”) taught me three lessons about community advocacy.
The first lesson is to truly listen. It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a car or a policy change—your motives should come second to the audience’s needs. This may sound counterintuitive, because it’s easier to stick to a script and just try and convince people of their needs. However, listening means respecting and honoring what others have to say and then tailoring a message that resonates with them. Believe me, it was easier to go through the motions from one house to the next, but rarely was it as effective as asking a lot of questions and then adjusting the pitch to meet people on their terms.
Second, know the community. In my case, I was dropped in to a community just for the summer months (not unlike many models in which people with good intentions swoop in to “save” a community without genuinely understanding its context, history or culture). In order to succeed at selling educational materials, I had to know how people felt about the local school district, the curriculum from elementary through high school, how the school sports teams did last year, each school’s mascot, etc. Yet, it was also important for me to recognize that I was an outsider. Likewise, in community advocacy work, it is worth acknowledging whether you’re an insider or an outsider. When supporting historically disenfranchised groups or those who often feel voiceless, knowing the context and your role (and limitations) in a community can help build capacity and further the efforts. Truly knowing a community doesn’t mean doing a quick Wikipedia search or interviewing a few stakeholders; it means understanding the day-to-day details. And in some cases, community advocates (or door-to-door salesmen) can never truly put themselves in the shoes of those with whom they are working.
Finally, and maybe the most important lesson I learned, was to knock. Show up. Do the work. Even though I knocked on 6,000 doors over those two summers, I was often nervous. It certainly got easier with practice, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still hard. As my manager told me, “No one is going to run out to the road to ask if they can buy the product from you.” Community advocacy also requires time, and often discomfort, with sticking out your neck. It can feel personal, because most of the time, it is! As a door-to-door salesman, when something felt risky I often reminded myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In my case, the worst thing that people could do was slam the door in my face. When it comes to advocating for healthy community change, however, putting yourself out there can make a difference in whether or not people feel safe in their own community, have access to healthy food or have equal opportunities for upward mobility.
I’d say that’s worth the risk. Let’s go knock on some doors together.