Jobs from hell: canvassing

It was 2009 and the recession was tough. I don’t remember what the ad said, but it said something about non-profits, social justice and helping them with your “hard work.” Plus, it involved money, which was music to my broke ears.

After sending my CV I got an email about some orientation in Koreatown. It turns out the job entailed canvassing so I could raise cash for a supposedly well-known environmental justice organization I’d never heard of.

Everyone seemed really progressive, and current canvassers talked about how great it was to know that they were talking to people every day about issues that needed attention while also getting paid. I went along with it even though I knew I’d hate it. (Having had a religious background, I hated going door to door preaching the word of Christ and getting it slammed on me, even though I only probably did this once or twice,. The memories of doors slamming in my face came back to me, and I could hear them in my head, but I digress….)

Everyone seemed cool. They gave us coffee and I thought that even though it wasn’t what I wanted I’d do it because it was the first place that replied two weeks after I graduated. Thoughts raised in my head like:

I’ll fake it till I make it. I’ll be star fundraiser. Just watch.

Some white girl interviewed me. Even though she obviously seemed progressive, it was clear she memorized her speech with the same gusto as a rabid politician trying to hold on to their seat. (You know, she made it sound new even though she probably said this to entire rooms full of people every week). She wore no make-up, had the same t-shirt as everyone else, and was probably about three years older than we were.

When she called everyone’s name she interviewed us in her little office, one by one. When I got there I talked about some social justice stuff I did during college, talked about how important it is to raise money for our causes, and discussed the importance of having progressive lobbyists. Then I talked about how I had been in student government in college and was used to giving speeches in front of crowds (I didn’t tell her how much I hated actually giving speeches and being used as a poster girl for causes, but whatever). It got me the job.

As soon as we signed our W-9 forms we were put to work for two hours. The canvassers gave us our training and discussed their strategies. A bunch of innocent faces looked at the more experienced colleagues and their impressionable eyes glistened at the thought of getting paid for doing social good.

We were briefly trained in some speech we had to give, given a sheet full of addresses and told which ones to knock on, and which ones to avoid. We had to fill sheets with information about people and try to get donations for that environmental justice group. All of the addresses were in wealthy L.A. areas that had few minorities.

Our trainers started asking us what ideas we have about how to raise more money, I raised my hand and said something to the lines of, “I live in Compton at the moment and we’re affected by environmental injustice every day. All the addresses you have are in Santa Monica and Bel-Air, but what about getting people in working class L.A. involved?” Everyone that was hired with me agreed, but the trainers gave me a fake smile. That’s when I knew this was about environmental justice for everyone except us and I wasn’t just going to hate this, I was going to loathe every minute of it.

But I needed money.

We were sent to some Santa Monica neighborhood in small teams. First, we helped each other out and got feedback, then our trainer gave us a few houses each and told us to go alone. Almost every prospective donor I talked to thought that environmental justice was important, but they were unemployed, afraid of eviction, or had high medical bills. Even though some people may have been lying, the housing bubble had just occurred and this was in an okay part of Santa Monica. They were apartment complexes, not the fancy houses I imagined, so I’m sure most people were too scared to part with their money. (When times get rough, our evolutionary instincts force us to become gatherers.)

I get to some door and I heard the sound of video games. Talked to some guy who seemed stoned, and asked for a donation. I got it. When we got back to Koreatown everyone had an individual meeting with the white girl. Some people walked away looking sad after talking to her, and others were smiling.

I showed up, told her I got a $20 donation and was told to come back the next day for an additional 8 hour training.

The next day, I get there on the metro because there was no way in hell I’d struggle with Koreatown parking and the hell that is trying to get anywhere on the 105/110 connection on the freeway. Plus, this was an environmental organization so I knew I’d automatically get points for using public transport.

I arrive and our training was about getting more money from people. I brought up the fact that a lot of people I talked to the day before were unemployed and scared and was told that hey, even broke people have money to spare. They might have unemployment benefits, or they could get their spouse or partner to donate. Or they could have access to X amount of money somewhere if I’m persuasive enough. Then the white girl shot me a look.

We went to some other part of Santa Monica, where I walked around for 8 hours and got nothing except a raging thirst, a terrible mood, and the epiphany that I’d be fired when I arrived with $0.

In Koreatown later that night, the white girl once again reiterated that even unemployed people in that area have money, that there are plenty of canvassers who make a decent living, and that she gets hundreds or even thousands in donations daily.

Then she said to expect my check in the mail in two weeks or less.

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