I made a table tent that simply says ‘Disability Advocates in Action’ for our event because table tents make it easier for the anxious and awkward to find and approach the group in the coffee shop where we plan to meet. Here it is pictured sitting on my laptop, amidst the detritus of my legal studies.

Taking it Out in Public

Part 3 or 4 of an Indefinite Series on Community Organizing

I’m not sure anyone really likes canvassing. Even I don’t, and I developed nerves of steel when it comes to awkwardness by spending several years working as a costumed street musician. Interrupting people’s days to talk to them about something, ask them for something, or hand them something is inherently uncomfortable for all parties involved. Sometimes, though, it’s simply unavoidable. UGA’s fall student activities fair was one of those times. We have an event coming up. I would like to see decent attendance. I want to make sure we’re reaching people who, like me, are disabled but aren’t registered with Disability Services and won’t get an email from that listserv or see a flyer in that office. I want to reach people who, like me, may have professional interests in disability whether or not they are, themselves, disabled so that the students who go on to be things like speech-language pathologists and psychiatrists actually have the learning experiences that could come from knowingly interacting with people with disabilities socially and on an equal footing. That made it important to take advantage of a good chance to get the word out, so I taped a few dozen invitations to our social to candy and set out to distribute them.

The best way to do this in my experience, really the only way, is wholeheartedly. Get in the way. Stand in a high-traffic area where people would have to be rude to avoid you. Look at them. Smile at them. Talk to them. Extend a hand with the thing you want people to take. Do everything you can to put them in the position of either acknowledging you or violating social norms. Very few people will want to talk to you. A few will be strong enough to be a little rude and win this game of social discomfort chicken. Many, however, are weak-willed or like free candy. These people took my mini-flyer. Some crumpled it up immediately, but others expressed interest or walked away reading it.

My next step was to talk to the people who actually wanted to talk to me. I took this more pleasant step second because it’s easy not to get around to the more awkward part if I don’t start with that. I went around to other organizations’ tables, the ones that looked health- or disability-related, and talked to them about what we’re trying to do. One of the student organizations with which I spoke plugged our event this morning:

The campus chapter of Amnesty International shared our event.

That was followed, almost immediately, by some new page likes. A scattershot approach can be helpful, especially if you have an efficient way to reach a lot of people (like hundreds of undergrads passing through a bottleneck in physical space), but there is nothing like targeting the audience you actually want to reach, especially if that audience is full of listservs and Facebook pages with bigger followings than your own.

After that, I did some even narrower targeting. I talked to students who obviously had some link to disability, like the ones who were clearly volunteers in the guide dog training program because they were accompanied by yellow-vested puppies. I also trusted my instincts. I walked around to the more nerdy, offbeat tables watching for people who twitched, moved in unusual ways didn’t meet my eyes, or just looked subtly different. I looked for the lurkers on the fringes of everything. I talked to them. Not everyone would feel comfortable with this way of doing things, but I have found people who did good things later by not being too polite to approach the ones who have the most obvious reasons to be interested in what I’m doing. I wasn’t pushy. I didn’t insinuate anything about a particular person. I always go away when I get a hard ‘no,’ but I insist on getting that ‘no’ before I go away. I did this last, as I always do, because I need time to inspect my environment carefully to figure out where these people are before I try to pick them up. As usual, the group that didn’t know it wanted to talk to me but had every reason to be interested in what I had to say seemed the most intrigued.

I won’t really know how this went until our event actually starts in a few minutes. The number of people who come will be my conversion rate, so to speak, though real-world growth always tends to be slower and more faltering than the kind that can be attained online. Real-world investment just requires a little more of people, but I hope we start to see a committed crowd.

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