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Confessions of an HRC Canvasser

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You're walking down the street (perhaps shopping, or on your lunch break), and up ahead you see one of those street activists with the binders. They're trying to make eye contact with you, but you've averted your gaze and pulled out your phone.

"Hey! Do you have one minute for gay rights?"

"You look like a nice guy! Why don't you stop and talk for a second?"

The pick-up lines are incessant. Sometimes they follow you down the street. Your stroll is spoiled, especially if you caved and stopped to talk to them only to find they're asking for your credit card information. You don't have the money, the interest or comfort-level to donate today. And I don't blame you.

If you didn't know, they're called "canvassers." I was one for the Human Rights Campaign for an entire summer two years ago when I was saving to go abroad, desperate for a summer job. After talking to hundreds and hundreds of people on the streets, I now understand that the psychophysiological misery of a canvasser is caused by many things. Their bosses, their donors, their long, standing hours and more often than not, rude gay people. I kept a journal during my time with the HRC as an incentive to one day share some things you might not have known about the annoying do-gooders accosting you on the sidewalks. I presume that with Pride season at hand, you've encountred, or will encounter, many of them out at the festivals trying to grab you "for a minute." And so here is my exposé.

Before I start, though, I would like to make clear that the HRC is an incredible organization changing lives, which I still value, still love and fully endorse donating to. Canvassing policies and protocol may have changed since my time two years ago. What I'm sharing here is a personal experience about the work environment of a professional activist that might change the way you look at one.

Commissioned incentive drives every canvasser's motivation to talk to you.

Spending four months with the non-profit, I can say my eurotrip thereafter was fully funded and then some. I've met many people who think it's a volunteer job, but I don't know anyone who could tolerate minute-by-minute psychophysiological turmoil without an above minimum wage, plus commission. Here's the catch.

Every HRC canvasser (at least during my time in Chicago) was expected to reach a quota of $220 during their work day 9-6, 40 hours a week. If you reach your quota, you got over $9 an hour plus 15 percent of your earnings after quota. Mind you, this commission doesn't come from the HRC donations but from an overhead fund. If you don't reach your quota, you are paid about $8 an hour, no commission and you have 2 more strikes before you're fired. This is a fact that is not always disclosed to canvassers when they're hired, and they're shocked when they're canned on their third day thinking this would have been a stable summer job.

The overarching goal of a canvasser is to get your credit card number on a form that sets you up to donate monthly. This is called a sustainer. Whatever they donate monthly, you get added to your quota multiplied by 9 (an average the HRC has estimated a donor will stay with their membership).

On my first day, I raised $112 dollars. My second day it rained. We still canvas in rain. I raised $51 dollars. On my third day I raised $199 and went back to the base expecting to get fired. My boss said she really liked me and invited me to come back for one more try.

It was a street festival in Wicker Park. I had a sustainer and many cash donations, but still hadn't hit the target. Had even met a gay club owner that forked over a $100 bill and said to her wife and kid, "This is how we give the government the middle finger."

I had also guilted another couple into giving me a donation by pulling the Sad Gay Card, a trick I was starting to get used to to grab a cool ten bucks. Finally, I found a girl carrying two beers with the words "Wasted" tattooed on her wrists.

She said to me, "I used to be addicted to cocaine, but now I'm starting to clean up and do things that make me feel good about myself."

She signed up for $33 dollars a month ($297 added to my total). I hit my quota and later recorded a grand total of $782.05. This was how the game was played.

Canvassers have a script and are taught to motivate a donor into giving more than they're comfortable with.

Canvassers are trained to memorize a number of things. First off, a one-minute script about the campaign we are working on that ends with a request for a donation. If they say no, we memorize a script that asks if we can take a little more of their time to explain to them what we do, asking, again, for a smaller donation. On the third no, we would barter down with a third script for a small, one-time donation, or let them go.

If they say yes, we memorize a response that asks them to sign up as a high sustainer, which usually resulted in a no, for which you have an additional script that would ask them to be a lower, monthly sustainer. You're taught several verbal tactics to stretch out the process before you accept the taboo one-time donation.

Though the script works to some extent, I would like to think that the reason I did so well as a canvasser was because I often broke from the script and just talked to people. I was often driven by quota, but would abandon that if it meant I could just hear someone's story.

HRC canvassers are told never to follow, approach or harass potential donors, which is a one-up you should appreciate, as other organizations are know to chase people around. We're trained to stand in the middle of the sidewalk to make it more difficult for people to pass us up. If we are able to stop someone, part of our script includes the ever so graceful handing-over of the binder. The binder now in the donor's hands creates an increased psychological pressure for the the stopper to stay there, more likely to donate.

We are not allowed to sign up donors under 18, but this is not a part of your training, nor do we ever check the birthdate on the form to make sure. We accept checks and cash, but a credit card sustainer is the ultimate goal.

Most upsetting to me, though, was that we were taught these sections of script over and over again, every morning from 9-10 before we headed to the field. But only once or twice was I ever taught to memorize the statistics of the campaign we were working for, which was the Employment Non-discrimination Act. Maybe once was I taught about the ways the HRC spends its money, the programs it upheld or the people's lives it could save. This was research I did on my down time, when I actually looked through the binders we were given which had pages and pages of useful information about the HRC that no one (canvasser or donor) ever reads.

Canvassers can be misled, tricked and lied to by their supervisors.

I got my job off of Craigslist. There was an ad (and there are still ads) saying that I could help change the course of gay rights and get paid $4000-$6000 this summer. I was called in for an interview the next day. After 8 minutes or so, they asked me when I could start, telling me that they were impressed with my experience level and they wanted me to head up a Field Management position. I felt quite encouraged until I found out that every canvasser is offered a Field Management position as an incentive to take a tough job.

I was trained in a room of maybe 15 or so new "employees." These droves of new-hires came in every other day, but slowed as the summer wore on.

Many canvassers are not told that they would be fired on their third day and take on the job thinking that this is a stable source of income. I trained countless newbies and got similar responses when they were fired: "Why didn't anyone tell me?"

The turnover rate is one of the highest out there. Having stayed there for four months (which is essentially tenure in canvassing world), there were only three other people in the office who were there from the beginning to the end of my term, and that includes every single one of my bosses and managers. I easily watched hundreds of new employees go through the organization before they quit, moved, gave up or were fired.

Your supervisors create a somewhat superficial relationship with you, where they're funny, they encourage you, they play favoritism and frequently talk as if you'll be there forever full knowing that you'll likely be gone the next week. My first day of canvassing, I watched my "boss" get fired for not making quota and another person on our team just leave the binder with the Field Manager and walk home, midday. I recorded multiple instances where people would cry in the office or cuss Field Managers out with their frustrations.

Your first hour of the work day is spent in a room with other canvassers getting psyched to go out and raise money. Group activities, role-playing, chants, huddles, awards and Beyoncé dance parties are a few methodologies for this feat. Two hours of the day are essentially a "gay summer camp," as I put it. The next hour is spent commuting, as groups make it out to dozens of intersections across your city which have been archived based on the statistical lucrativeness of that location. You are given two 15-minute breaks, one lunch break and a group breakfast (which is sometimes skipped if you have a distant assignment to get to).

Your worth is essentially evaluated based on how much you raise. Often when you got back to the office after the day was up, your co-workers would ask you how much you raised, and you'd feel pressured to share your number. Mid-summer, I talked to a manager about possibly changing the way we discuss our personal funding numbers, and she was the only one who ever tried to change the environment with me, but we were unsuccessful and she ended up leaving to California.

Everyday, an employee is "debriefed," which means they go into a room with someone in management and talk about their number. It is in this debriefing that the manager tells you whether or not you are fired.

I noticed that all the Field Managers warmed up to me after I started making quota on a regular basis. It was something I found a bit unsettling, but it did create a lot of incentive for me to be a better canvasser in order to keep friends. I was (and we all were) victims to the system.

The success of a canvasser is largely based on their physical appearance.

I learned later on that what I looked like had a big part to play in who would stop to talk to me. Generally speaking, wearing glasses, pants and a button down would get adults or families to stop. Wearing a tank top, short shorts and my hair in a bun could stop hipsters, liberal moms, high schoolers and other gays.

Different canvassers stopped different demographics. I am Latino, and could stop Latinos or generally anyone darker than me. I also had a haircut almost exactly like Rihanna's at the time, and women would stop to ask me what my weave number was. (It was natural.) Being 22, I generally could not stop men in suits. I recorded only two men who ever stopped for me wearing a suit, and both times they were Canadian. White people had an easier time stopping white people. If you were male, you were less likely to stop females who were alone, but a better chance at stopping females in groups. Females (generally) could have an easier time stopping people, as they seem more approachable. A girl in a hijab could stop a lot of people who were curious about why a girl in a hijab was supporting the HRC, but the two that I saw only ever stayed for a week.

Black canvassers have a harder time stopping people who are not black. During my time there, no black canvasser stayed for more than two weeks before they couldn't make quota anymore. Generally, black males could stay four or five days. The only other Latino canvasser from our team quit after a couple stopped, talked to her, but then asked if they could give the money to someone else because they didn't feel comfortable giving it to her. I watched her break down and cry on the sidewalk.

These are all mere observations. A canvasser, regardless of appearance, could raise a lot of money if they were great, fluid negotiators. But stopping people was half the feat.

The highest-grossing canvasser in the office was a straight, white male of average height, average weight, glasses, was a little over 30 and had a seemingly ambiguous sexual orientation. He was with the HRC my entire time there.

Another girl who lasted had her hair dyed black, half shaved, gauge piercings, edgy makeup and many visible tattoos. She was an incredible negotiator, stopping liberals with ease and by some anomaly, reached a very wide demographic. She disclosed with us, though, that she would get hate speech more often than not. She also told us that days she wore a skirt could often get her a higher number.

My point here is that when you see a canvasser on the street, take notice of your immediate response and then question why or why not you decided to acknowledge the canvasser. That's all.

I was heckled and humiliated less often by Christian apologists and more often by rude gay people.

For every 100 people you say hi to, you'll probably get one person who stops (depending on where you are and how good of a greeting you have). Many canvassers are stationed outside of Whole Foods because of the high liberal, high income demographic it appeals to. It was where I would often have the easiest time raising money.

Once or twice a week, I would get called a "faggot," or some Christian would shout hate speech at me, asking for repention. This number varies depending on your greeting and location, but it's much less frequent than you would think.

About every other day, a gay person would be rude to me. This could be a range of responses. Sometimes men would pass by and say, with disgust, "Honey I'm already helpin gay rights." Or a response I've heard several times: "Girl, I'm livin it." I recorded one man saying, "I gave once and those motherfuckers call me every week." I've seen people who were (forgive me) clearly gay, waltz by and say, "fuck no." Perhaps because they either knew I was asking for money, or did not believe in the Human Rights Campaign. A few times, men would stop and talk, then grab my ass or feel my side and donate nothing.

Many times, people would stop to tell me about how transphobic the HRC was, or how the HRC gives too much money to overhead or how the HRC was primarily a marriage-focused organization. My response would be that the HRC has made leaps and bounds to remedy all three of these things and provide information, though this is of course contestable. Other canvassers, however, rarely knew much about the inner workings of the actual organization they were fundraising for, and therefore did not know how to defend themselves. The reality is that it's not the fault of the canvasser, but improper training. Though they should not feel the need to be on constant defense because of their own team.

Canvassers change lives.

Any grassroots organization can't do what they do without canvassers raising money every day. A few minutes spent on the HRC homepage helps you learn about the wide range of programs they create, countries they fight for, campaigns they produce, court cases they fight and publicity they develop for the movement in general.

Every canvasser on the street is a +1 exposure for a stranger who maybe was not thinking about gay rights that day. A canvasser could be a +1 conversation a stranger has never had before about the movement, about ENDA or gay marriage or about their country. It is a +1 point for the movement to get the word out there.

Canvassers are the reason the HRC is able to change lives. I felt often like I was paid in these stories, and would always stop to listen and talk to someone, like a girl who was evicted for being gay. To hug a girl whose cousin had committed suicide. To meet a couple whose daughter had accidentally married a gay man. ("It's okay now. We love him, and he's still family.")

To talk to a trans woman who just got out of penitentiary. To have people show me their equals sign tattoos and their wedding rings. To watch a large group of girls pour out their coin purses into my hands, saying "This one's for Hunter!" looking back at a shy teenage boy with the group who was their budding GBFFL.

I stopped a Christian man who was at first upset, but was shocked to hear of the gay Christian network the HRC fosters. I've stopped a man who was deaf and mute, but still stopped with his translator to tell me he was in support. Once a very old man approached me and lifted up a picture on his phone of a small black boy in the bathtub with bubbles all over his face. "This is my son," he said. "I was able to have him because of the ways the HRC facilitates our adoption process."

If you are L, G, B or T, I'm not asking you to donate or even stop for a canvasser. But you should know that any degree of rudeness you convey is friendly fire during a war. Just because you don't want to donate with a canvasser, doesn't mean you should be rude to a canvasser. Smile. Say, "I support what you do." Say, "No, thank you." I cannot express how much my moral was boosted when a stranger would shout, "I love the HRC," or give me a high five, or a hug or stop to get me a coffee. If you pay in kindness, it will allow a canvasser to feel the motivation to fundraise the money you are not able to donate.

There are many ways America's tide is changing, and canvassers are one reason why. Whether you're looking to donate, or you're looking to support or if you just want us to know that we're O.K., say so. The civil rights shift begins and ends with your kindness.