Progressives launch "listening campaign" in Howard County

A liberal advocacy group spent a Saturday afternoon knocking on doors to get Howard County residents talking about politics.

Together We Will, a group founded in reaction to Donald Trump's election as president, held a door-to-door "listening campaign" June 10 in Owen Brown to ask residents what political issues mattered most to them. They began knocking on doors around Howard County in March and will continue through 2017, with the next outing in mid-July.

The canvassing effort, called Knock Every Door, draws from a national movement that advocates "deep canvassing," which requires in-depth conversations with voters. Canvassers gather data by asking respondents to rate their preferences on a scale, then getting them to describe those preferences in detail with follow-up questions.

Together We Will co-chair Becca Niburg said the effort is strictly a "listening campaign – not an attempt for us to impose views or lecture people.

"Politics has become an exercise of people talking at each other," Niburg said. "Our goal with the campaign is to bridge the divide to truly listen to all points of view."

She said she hopes elected officials will use the data they collect to craft policies that respond to "what real people need."

"Everybody is kind of worried about the same things," said Niburg. "People just want their families to be safe and they want to have a job."

Other local liberal organizations including Red to Blue, Indivisible and Do The Most Good are also participating in the campaign, as is the Howard County Democratic Campaign Committee.

Niburg co-chairs the county's branch of Together We Will with its founder, Chiara D'Amore.

The Howard County chapter of Together We Will began as a chapter of Pantsuit Nation, a private Facebook group of Hillary Clinton supporters that emerged before the election. After Trump was elected, organizers across the country began working to "galvanize" reactions, and D'Amore decided to focus on local issues.

"Politics are highly local," D'Amore said. "I just wanted to do something at the county level where people could get to know each other."

She describes Together We Will as a "progressive solidarity network" whose priorities include fostering inclusive communities, protecting the environment, securing equal rights and amplifying other progressive voices.

The volunteer-driven Howard County group has more than 1,200 members on its private Facebook page, Niburg said. A smaller number, D'Amore said, come to in-person meetings regularly. About 70 percent are women, she estimated, but she said each volunteer has a different drive to show up.

"What I've found is that most people want to do something, they just don't know where to go or what to do," D'Amore said.

One of Together We Will's youngest volunteers is Niburg's daughter, Alyssa. The 8-year-old has helped in Knock Every Door events and said her favorite part is "that I get to hear other people's stories and compare them to some of mine."

One of Alyssa's biggest worries about the next four years is that "more children are gonna have less friends, because their friends are immigrants," she said. "If you go back far enough, everyone's an immigrant. Trump is an immigrant!"

Together We Will Howard County falls under the national group's umbrella, and is also a registered member of the movement Indivisible, recently in headlines for organizing protests at Republican town halls around the U.S. But both D'Amore and Niburg said that their group's focus is local and strictly non-partisan.

Howard County bills that the group has supported include CB-9, , the so-called "sanctuary bill," and CN-30, a bill to create a public finance system for political candidates, Niburg said.

For D'Amore, who said she saw Howard County and Columbia as a "progressive, forward-looking place to be," the presidential election, as well as the Republicans leading the state and county, signified a shift.

On June 10, five volunteers trudged from door to door in the stifling 88-degree heat, knocking on doors, asking residents of Owen Brown what mattered to them.

Armed with scripts and clipboards and sunscreen, the group divvied up neighborhoods and split into two groups. One group approached a quiet block of brick townhouses. It took 10 doors before the volunteers heard the sound of a latch opening.

Later, Hester remarked on the cultural and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood, noting that most people they talked to that day were non-native English speakers. Most residents they spoke to leaned liberal, and none were Republicans.

The first resident they spoke to, Ali Ali, said he approved of Trump despite being a registered Democrat. "He's not a typical politician," Ali said. "That's a good thing." Ali later said one of the most important issues to him was arts education, because "it makes people more tolerant."

Other residents saw Trump in a more negative light. Asked to rate his satisfaction with the president, on a scale of one to 10, Lolu Osoba let out a deep, booming laugh. "Zero," he shouted. "Russia select your president for you!"

Owen Brown resident Michael Ioffe also gave Trump a zero, and when asked to think of words to describe him joked: "Do you really want me to think about him?"

Originally from Nigeria, Osoba told the volunteers that he now votes in every election — Hester gave him a fist bump. Ioffe, who came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, also said he votes regularly. "I came from a country where that wasn't an option," he said.

Nearly every resident named healthcare as a primary issue facing the country; many also named education and the environment.

Though most had strong opinions about national politics, most were stumped when asked about state and local politicians.

One resident said Hogan had "done a lot of beautiful things," but when asked for specifics admitted he did not pay attention to state politics.

Most people, volunteer Jennifer Jones said, didn't like Trump, but were "okay" with Republicans Gov. Larry Hogan and County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Prunier Law, who said Saturday's canvassing event was her first with Knock Every Door, remarked that peoples' political opinions seemed overshadowed by their daily lives. She described asking one rushed resident if they were happy with the election. The resident responded, "Sure not. But I've got to feed my kids."

"I think it's really important that we feel the humanity of people," Prunier Law said.

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