Canvassing Then and Now: The Life of a Community Relations Specialist

In a brief break from football... here's a little bit about my life, present and future, as a member of FEMA Corps out on the road.

Andy Tisdel is a current member of Americorps NCCC/FEMA Corps and is blogging like crazy about it. Occasionally, some of his stuff will show up in this space, describing what life is like out on the road working for FEMA. If you're interested and would like to hear more, do not despair: more can be found at tisdelstirades.blogspot.com.

During this past summer, I worked as a canvasser—very briefly—for two different organizations: Wisconsin’s Public Interest Research Group and Obama for America. Both jobs had me going door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods, talking to all manner of ordinary citizens and trying to either pry money out of them (as with PIRG) or getting them to register to vote if they had not already done so (OFA). I mention this because as a Community Relations Specialist, I’m going to be doing a lot of going door-to-door in disaster zones and listening to the survivors. My job—and the job of the other half-dozen teams of CR specialists in the Vicksburg class—is to assess, inform and report, to listen and hear and understand.

They say that the CR specialist is the face of FEMA, but I think a more appropriate analogy (I’m my team’s designated analogy guy, by the way) would be a capillary. There are lots and lots of us and, individually, we are insignificant in the sweeping chaos of a disaster zone. But we collect information and feed it up the FEMA pipeline, as it joins other information from other CR specialists and is compiled into reports (veins), which eventually find their way to the heart (Joint Field Office). We are the rock upon which disaster policy is built; our reports dictate, in part, FEMA’s response. That’s a hell of a responsibility, especially for young people like FEMA Corps Members, although we will be with a mentor (at least initially).
And it is not easy work. Our instructors have told us, or at least hinted from time to time, that we should prepare for the worst when we go to knock on doors. I mean, come on, it’s a disaster! It’s going to bring out some ugliness in people, people looking for somebody to blame or people struggling not to break down completely. We have to help all of them, point them in the right direction and let them know how they can get registered for aid. When I was canvassing, I got plenty of people who were terse or rude or simply didn’t want to talk, and that can wear on you. It wore on me. FEMA Corps won’t have to raise money the way I did, so that takes some of the pressure off, but we’ll still have to slough off negative reactions like so much angry snakeskin.

CR specialists live in tough conditions, too. The word from the Powers That Be is that we’ll hopefully be deployed right after disasters strike, so good luck finding regular lodging. With a sort of grim resignation, we (or maybe that grim bit’s just me) are prepared to sleep in waterlogged tents, eat crappy food and work twelve-hour days pounding the pavement, because the accommodations and accessories are secondary: you go where you go and do what you must, which is what we’re all here to do.

And I think that’s the key, the “what we’re all here to do”. Here’s the thing: I quit my first canvassing job after a week because I was flat miserable. The cause I was working for really didn’t need the money I was raising, and I just didn’t buy into the message they were sending. You try walking the streets for hours at a time, knocking on a door and trying to sell perfect strangers on something you don’t believe in. Maybe some people can canvass without buying into what they’re selling, but I needed something that I could personally get behind.

And that’s what disaster relief brings, you know? I know I harp on this theme, probably more than I should, but we’re all here to do good works. We’ve got that motivation, and after six solid weeks of training, we’ve got the hunger to get out into the world and start doing what we all came here to do. That’s how we’re gonna weather the lousy parts of this gig, because the motivation is there to do what we must… and because the good times, or so I hear, are so overwhelmingly satisfying. Each night, I will be able to crawl into my government-issued sleeping bag and drift off to sleep saying “I helped an old lady get registered for FEMA assistance today,” or “I reported some downed power lines in a community this afternoon and got repair crews out to fix it before someone got electrocuted,” or “I helped a dozen newly homeless people find someplace where they could get food and shelter”. We’ve got all kinds of belief or nonbelief systems in this Corps, but I think everyone would agree that we’re doing righteous work. And unlike a lot of people in the Corps, we are privileged to do it face-to-face with the people who need help. I think that is a great gift that we’ve been given.

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