I can come up with a handful of half-decent excuses to not talk to a canvasser on the street, ranging from the whiny to the legit– I really am too broke to help. But to tell the truth, I also don’t want to get into a difficult conversation about the dismal state of the world. Don’t we have enough of that shoved down our social media feeds everyday? So yes, turns out I am that person that we wrote about in October, the one who brushes past Amnesty International canvassers. There’s an art to it, too: first I let my gaze turn steely, then I tighten the grip on my bag and put on an air of a person with a purpose. It works like a charm and at worst, I’m left with a slight twinge of guilt.
I know I’m not the only one– when you google Street Canvassers, the first autofill is “annoying.” But, having realized yet another hypocrisy about myself, I decided to stop when I was approached by canvasser Kasigo Tshwene the other day. Lured in part by his lilting African accent and genteel manner, I thought it polite to at least listen to the man before I brushed him off. The other canvassers gleamed at me with hope even though I knew I’d inevitably turn down the pitch. Geez, talk about pressure.
But it didn’t turn out the way I expected. I wound up having a long conversation with him and learned some pretty cool things. We all know canvassing is a hard job that requires you to be on your feet all day, facing rejection while you work in the sweltering sun or in the frigid snow. But, according to Tshwene, the toughest part of the job can be meeting passionate people who use the interaction as a vent for their anger. “You have to realize it’s not about you and learn how to be calm,” he says, particularly with people who are angry, for example, at Amnesty International’s vocal support of gay rights, or well-informed people expressing revulsion at America’s interventionist politics.
Then there’s the immediacy of meeting a victim, often someone on the receiving end of police brutality. On a daily basis, Tshwene meets “people who have been violated, people who have been tortured, beaten up, you know, forced to confess to the crimes they never committed.” These people are understandably bitter that not enough is being done at a policy level to address these issues, but a street canvasser is hardly the authority who deserves the hostility.
Daily hardships and conflict aside, the experience of canvassing in the Village has been very successful. Tshwene and the four other canvassers with him come to the area in rotation twice a week. Tshwene alone has had roughly 115 to 117 sign-ups in the past four months, and those people will be making sustained monthly donations of at least $15 each. “That [amount] can feed a family of four, five people in Syria for almost a whole month,” he says proudly.
In actuality, Amnesty International isn’t a direct service organization, which means they don’t provide food and medical aid. Still, the funds help the organization take critical action against human rights abuses. Robyn Shepherd, a spokesperson for Amnesty International USA, told us, “We engage in activism by training local leaders and volunteers how to work with their elected officials to take action on behalf of prisoners of conscience and victims of human rights abuses around the world.” I find it comforting to know that Amnesty’s work trickles down to the local level.
Now, I can’t promise that I won’t rush past the next canvasser I see, but this conversation showed me that fast-paced New Yorkers really can help in a meaningful, tangible way. The Village has a storied history of activism and Tshwene told me how humbled he feels when he meets a longtime Amnesty member while on the job. But 115 sign-ups? Seriously, that’s impressive.