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The power of one

by Bert Easter
I wasn’t that nervous, really. I had done door-to-door work before. But I could tell that a few folks in the room were. After all, we were planning to walk up to people’s front doors

and ask them for an opinion on gay relationships. One of our volunteers did professional car repossessions; she said she was ready for anything. At a state campaign strategy meeting last summer, several state activists argued against door-to-door campaigns, insisting that it wouldn’t be safe, people would get bitten by dogs, someone might even get shot.

Having knocked on doors for an openly gay candidate in Charleston, in some rural areas, I thought these fears were exaggerated. I believe strongly in the power of one person to make a difference and in the importance of this kind of direct, grassroots political work. Billboards and TV ads may be flashier, but I believe that nothing can be as effective as a neighbor asking a neighbor for their support and their vote.

So in November and December, volunteers from the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement (SCGLPM) met twice at the Harriet Hancock Community Center to do door-to-door canvassing. We were canvassing Melrose Heights, a small neighborhood in Columbia where the Hancock Center is located and the neighborhood I live in. Most folks in the neighborhood probably know the Center and we figured the neighborhood was pretty progressive since Kerry won here in 2004. We figured it had a fairly gay-friendly population as well, given the number of university students and all those little Human Rights Campaign (HRC) equal sign bumper stickers.

In groups of two, we walked the streets, asking people to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment that will prohibit legal protections for gay and lesbian couples and their children, which will be on the ballot in November. We told people we were volunteers from the community center down the street, making the politics local. And my partner and I told people that we are their neighbors, just down the block on Fairview, making our appeal personal as well. Most folks in the neighborhood didn’t know anything about the amendment, but most said that they would vote against the amendment.

A few years ago, SCGLPM invited Georgia representative Karla Drenner to speak at Pride. Drenner is an out lesbian and mother of two who won a House seat in Georgia against the odds. She didn’t have major funding, she didn’t have TV ads and she didn’t even have the endorsement of Georgia Equality, the state gay group, which decided to endorse a gay-friendly Democrat rather than one of their own since they didn’t think she had the money or the clout to win.

But she did win. In Drenner’s book, “The Power of One,” she tells of long days walking her district, meeting voters face to face, listening to their concerns, and asking for their votes. This is old-fashioned grassroots work, but it is still effective. And I believe it is the only way for us to run an effective campaign for the hearts, minds and ultimately the votes of our neighbors.

When we meet voters at the state fair booth or on their own front porches, we challenge old stereotypes about our community, we answer their concerns about the real issues and we ask for their support. As we saw from our outreach at the state fair this year, surprising numbers of people will support us, when we explain the issues to them — and when we ask them to support us.

We cannot afford a campaign based on television commercials and billboards and mass mailings. Nor do I think any of these things would ever be as effective as a neighbor asking a neighbor for their support and their vote.

But this kind of volunteer work is time and labor intensive. It requires a lot more people than the few folks who showed up at the Center to help us this fall, and it requires more courage, I think, than our community has shown before now. It means taking the risk of telling your neighbor that you are one of the people this amendment will hurt. It means having the courage to tell the married man next door, the divorced school teacher across the street or the closeted gay man down the block, that their votes matter on this, and that they will be voting on folks like you.

We need a lot more folks like Rep. Drenner in our community, and more folks like those few volunteers who showed up at the Center this fall, or the 56 volunteers who helped at the South Carolina Equality Coalition (SCEC) booth at the state fair this fall, people who aren’t afraid, who are not going to sit by idly during this fight and expect others to do the work, people who believe in the power of one voice.

I know that a lot of folks don’t think we can win. The national organizations don’t give us the funding or support they give other states and some of our own folks don’t think we can change things here in South Carolina. But I think about Karla Drenner’s campaign and I believe we can win.

And I know that come election night in November — whether we win or lose — I want to have done everything I can to create change and empower our community. If we lose, I don’t want to hear from any depressed friends I didn’t see out in the trenches helping with the work. And if we win — even if we don’t win the whole state but do win some neighborhoods — I hope there will be a lot of folks, more than the four people who showed up at the Center to do this work or the 50 who showed up at the state fair, to celebrate these well-earned victories. I hope that we will be able to say that we used this opportunity to its fullest, that we empowered our community in unprecedented ways and that we did everything we could to make this state a better place for all of us.

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