Our field canvass is the heart of our grassroots organizing, and this year, we are honored to recognize two of our organizers at Clean Water Action’s Annual Spring Celebration, which will be held at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation on May 23.
Amber Schmidt is this year’s recipient of the John O’Connor Award for Canvassing. Amber, our new New England Zero Waste Organizer, was a canvass director for almost 10 years where she worked to win seats for pro-environment legislators during elections and organized grassroots support for Clean Water’s campaigns.
Jen Loveland Rose, a Clean Water program intern and field manager, is the recipient of the Youth Action Award. While still canvassing, Jen played a central role in our Drinking Water campaigns and supported our early involvement with Clean Air Taunton. - a local group fighting a proposed sludge incinerator. She is studying at Northeastern University School of Law, and is a Legal Research Intern at the Program for Human Rights and the Global Economy.
In this interview, I got the chance to ask them both about their adventures in field canvassing and what canvassing lessons they will take with them into their new roles.
What was most rewarding about your canvassing work at Clean Water Action?
Jen: A lot of political conversations are siloed and canvassing strengthened my capacity to meet people where they are and to identify what they care about in order to build a broader coalition in support of larger goals. You never know who is behind the door you are knocking on and what their beliefs are, but environmental justice issues have so much potential to bring people in because it's virtually impossible to not find some way to connect the work that Clean Water does to the values of the person we were canvassing.
Amber: At first, the interactions I had with community members that were directly impacted by the campaigns I worked on motivated me. The hope that I gave them to being a conduit of change felt so empowering. Then my first legislative victory. Seeing all the hard work and dedication that was fulfilled with passing a bill committed me more to the work and the power of canvassing. Finally, moving into the Canvass Director role, I found that teaching people the skills to canvass and harness public pressure and inspiring others to continue the work was extremely rewarding.
What motivated you each day in the field?
Amber: Direct action is always the most efficient way to make change. Taking a campaign directly to someone's door and seeing the commonalities we have as humans and our desire to live life free from toxic chemicals, political corruption, and pollution has always motivated me to keep knocking. Every door and every person is a chance to connect on the issue, and the gratitude people show for the hard work canvassers do continues to motivate me throughout my career.
Jen: There is literally nothing more important than having clean water for generations to come. I grew up in Bahrain, which is incredibly water scarce, but because of the strong economy, we were able to make drinking water from desalination plants. I knew how scarce of a resource it was and how expensive it is to artificially generate. Historically, Bahrain's islands were dotted with fresh water springs, that's why the country has its name: “the land of two seas”. But man-made disruption to the water table and aquifers have dramatically changed the availability of water and created the reliance on desalination plants. There isn't anywhere on this planet where the water supplies are not threatened for one reason or another and those reasons are almost all because of the greed of the wealthy few. This is a mission that the indigenous groups globally have been fighting for for years.
What inspired you to join the Clean Water Action canvass?
Jen: I was interested in working for Clean Water because I believe deeply in the power of the people to pressure those in power. Even when days were hard, one thing I was able to hold onto was that I spent my time talking to people about something that matters.
Amber: I had worked as a canvasser for a smaller local non-profit environmental organization in my home state of Connecticut and had learned about Clean Water Action through our coalitions. I wanted to take my understanding of local issues and politics and learn more about those topics nationally. I also wanted to work on elections, as I always wanted to run for office. I felt a calling to continue this as my career.
What challenges did you experience when you started, and what advice would you give others starting out?
Amber: I would not still be doing this work if it were not for the amazing colleagues and support I received. Mentorship at Clean Water Action is fundamental to moving past difficult situations, and I am so grateful for all of the people in this organization that saw my potential and encouraged me to keep going— most importantly, Michelle Beaudin.
Jen: I think the people I had the hardest time reaching while canvassing were the people who had given up hope and not the people who disagreed with me. Active hope is one of the most crucial things to hang on to in this work. Because it can be such a slow process to push back against all of the compounding structures that have created this mess to begin with.
I would say grace is the most important tool in canvassing. It's like when you are driving and someone swerves around all the lanes at high speeds. Instead of getting angry at their disregard for human life, I try to tell myself that they are clearly in an emergency situation or they are giving birth whilst driving. Having a negative experience at a door is similar. It's a mental exercise to walk away from that, extending as much grace to that person as possible, and reframing your head space before approaching the next person. It's a practice that transfers to any social situation—reminding yourself that they are human and are going through more behind the scenes than we likely know.
Amber: My advice to folks looking to do this work is to take time in difficult situations to reflect and remember why you wanted to join this movement; you will find the strength and determination to keep fighting!
What will you bring with you from your experience of canvassing?
Amber: The kindness from complete strangers who support our work. The hospitality that our members show to our canvassers and to me keeps us going. Many people think knocking on doors is scary and that people just slam doors in your face all night. Those situations do happen, but more often people care about canvassers as humans and activists. All the hot tea, snacks, bathrooms, cold ice water, children interested in learning, residents giving you a respite from rain, and countless other positive experiences are things I value. This work has inspired in me the belief of kindness in humanity.
Jen: In the future, I am looking to grow my understanding of how I can integrate my passion for environmental justice inside and outside of my career. In this mission, I will bring with me my experiences at Clean Water Action, both canvassing as well as sitting in on lobbying strategy and political decision making. I felt like I was most able to contribute to campaigns when I used my work from each role to inform the other.
With my JD, I hope to understand more about the process of drafting policy as well as how to hold corporations legally accountable for the harms they have caused. I am under no illusion that the real work or change gets done in places of power, but I am hoping to be more informed about how those structures operate and how I can work within and outside of them to meet immediate needs and uplift other voices.
Amber: I am looking forward to continuing to fight for environmental justice, to hold polluters accountable, and to grow even more as a person. Moving into the New England Zero Waste Organizer role will have me canvassing restaurants, schools, and institutions. My experience as a canvasser and the skills I've learned and perfected are quintessential to this position. I feel excited and confident in what my future holds here at Clean Water Action.