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The Planet

Sierra Club's Canvass Covers America

Emily McFarland

Canvass Coordinator

It's 7:30 p.m. and Jane Citizen is eating dinner when the doorbell rings. Opening the door, she's greeted by an earnest Sierra Club canvasser who asks her to help fight a "salvage logging" measure that would authorize rampant clearcutting in our national forests. Jane says she hasn't heard about this or any other threat looming in Congress. A few minutes later, after hearing that her representative voted to gut the Clean Water Act that protects her tap water, she becomes the Sierra Club's newest member. The Club is in its second year of operating a door-to-door membership recruitment and conservation outreach program, better known as the canvass. "Knocking on more than 1 million doors this summer, canvassers will carry the critical message to Americans that the 104th Congress has declared an all-out War on the Environment and that the Club needs their support to protect our air, water, wildlife and open space," said Club President J. Robert Cox. Most Club leaders say canvassing fills a critical niche: Roughly 60 percent of the people reached at the door know little to nothing about Congress' assault on our environment, and 95 percent do not know what they can do about it.

In over 28 sites this summer, the canvass aims to recruit more than 36,000 members and obtain 150,000 signatures on the Environmental Bill of Rights petition. The program also distributes timely action alerts to generate phone calls, letters and activism in response to recent anti-environmental legislation such as Sen. Bob Dole's "risk assessment" bill. Although the program's core message is based on the Club's national campaign to turn back the War on the Environment, each canvasser ties in local examples such as how H.R. 961, the "Dirty Water Bill," would directly affect local drinking water sources.

Region by region, the program is fostering working relationships between canvassers and the Club's volunteers and staff. The Bellevue canvass in Washington state played a critical role in collecting signatures for a ballot referendum to defeat a damaging "takings" initiative passed by the state legislature. In Florida, the Miami canvass took important information door-to-door about the campaign to save the Everglades. And in Idaho, canvassers and Club leaders conducted a joint press conference on the Safe Drinking Water Act. "The canvassers have been very enthusiastic and well- informed," said Idaho Chapter staffer Roger Singer. "They have done an excellent job of getting information out to local people. This is grassroots advocacy in action."

The canvass is managed and operated by the Fund for Public Interest Research, a non-profit organization which has 25 years of experience operating canvass programs for a wide variety of social justice and environmental causes. Membership Committee Chair Sandy Miles spent an evening on the job with Indianapolis canvassers and learned first-hand to appreciate their challenging work environment. "I admire them for doing this," she said. "They get turned down so many times, yet they manage to stay upbeat." Ed Johnson, regional director for the Charlotte canvass and a six-year veteran of canvassing, is motivated by a vision of "more people being empowered and engaging in the political debate through my work. A person may not give today at the door, but may vote in the next election or call their senator after learning that he or she voted to dismantle the Clean Water Act."

Every canvass program has its drawbacks, and the Sierra Club's is no exception. For example, it is not economically viable to canvass in small towns far from densely populated areas, so the program cannot help build Sierra Club membership in rural communities. Some Club members oppose interrupting people at home in the evening, while others question the canvassers' ability to represent the Sierra Club in all its complexity. But canvassers are briefed daily about the Club's campaigns and current battles, and they share that knowledge with a broad cross-section of the American public. "The canvass program is reaching average citizens who want their grandchildren to enjoy a safe and healthy environment, and it's helping them make a difference," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director.

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