While Canvassing


by Pam Cooper

When you canvass you meet people where they live – literally. Doors open (or not) into dwellings of all kinds, and you catch glimpses into other lives and other worlds: pianos, storage tubs, dogs, sideboards, cats, and curious toddlers meet your eye. Variety and surprise are everywhere. Whatever the outcome of the canvassing encounter, it feels like a privilege to share a brief connection with people who have greeted you, and even offered you hospitality, as a stranger. A canvasser, of course, is a stranger with a message: I’ve been campaigning for Adam Searing and the four candidates who are running with him in the current election. Here’s some of the questions and issues that have come up on my rounds.

People are worried about housing, construction, and development. Some asked what the end point of all this production of super-expensive housing is. I had no good answer apart from accommodating the rich and providing tax harvest. Money is talking and the investor class loves it. People’s actual lives seem to get lost in the hustle. Over ice-cold sparkling water on a glorious fall day, I talked with one resident about the Searing team’s enthusiastic support for affordable housing rather than the privileged enclaves for the wealthy that the Town promotes.

Traffic is a big issue for lots of residents. I sympathized, as I can’t really see how the Town’s apparent support of alternative transport squares with the hundreds of parking spaces included in these mega-blocks. While the talk is about the latest fad of “Complete Communities,” we’re effectively building a town for more and more cars. And what about those who can’t walk or cycle? The “Complete Community” ideal (or fairy-tale) depends on constant, efficient public transport. I doubt we have the means to provide the kind of bus service we’d need.

People talked about infrastructure and how it’s not keeping up with the binge-building – and this led to the topic of budget woes: the Town is planning to rent space for a police station that it can’t afford to replace. It is millions of dollars in debt and unable to maintain its firetrucks, garbage trucks, and police vehicles. Yet the Council paid almost half a million dollars to Canadian consultant Jennifer Keesmaat to bring us the catchy phrase “Complete Communities.” These five candidates seek to correct this imbalance. We’re an educated town, generally speaking – let’s hire advisors locally if they’re needed. An overhaul of spending and priorities is long overdue.

There’s concern about quality of life. In a denuded concrete landscape, what can residents find to enhance their lives, to make the difference between living in a place and just existing in it? We need to conserve woodland, invest in parks, and strike a healthy balance between growth and the preservation of all we have that’s good – that people over many decades have worked to build in Chapel Hill. Without a sense of tradition and respect for the past, we impoverish ourselves going forward.

Green space and tree-canopy are flashpoints. I’ve seen distress among residents at the clear-cutting of what remains of our urban forests to raise more apartment blocks. With the climate crisis worsening, such incontinent destruction of the natural world is misguided. It’s not enough for developers to throw down concrete, throw up buildings, and plant a few saplings. The thinking among many Chapel Hillians seems to be that no-one cares enough about conservation to preserve and nurture what we have. This is tragic; the Searing team is pro-conservation and embraces values which prioritize people and their well-being above profit.

Meeting people in their homes and neighborhoods showed me again that our relationship with our living spaces — including natural living spaces like gardens and woodland — is crucial to our individual and collective identities. Talking with residents in their homes and communities, sharing a laugh, admiring a pot plant or shrub, made it clear that without daily access to and nurture of the natural world, we are a diminished species.

Canvassing is for me a life-lesson, an opening up, an opportunity to listen and talk. These are the rewards of grass-roots work. It’s not only powerful work politically, but valuable in itself. I’ll end with a quote from historian and climate scholar Matthias Schmelzer, who traces the ideological roots of the view we seem to have of nature as an instrument and/or an inconvenience: “The practical treatment of all things and living beings as comparable, interchangeable, and tradable, as well as the mechanistic understanding of nature based on linear thinking, were consolidated in colonialism.” Let’s strive for a wise approach that dispels that terrible specter.

Pam Cooper is a Chapel Hill writer and teacher – (pcooper@email.unc.edu)

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