Advocates adopted new strategies amid COVID pandemic

Serving in safety: LGBTQ advocates adopt new outreach and voter education strategies in 2020

by Pat Moran (he/him)

Featured Photo Above: Equality NC volunteers masked up and headed out to educate early voters at Hornet’s Nest Park in Charlotte in October. Photo by Equality NC.

Welcome to the 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine! This article is part of the annual Charlotte Pride Magazine, published this year as a special year-end retrospective for 2020. You can see all 2020 Charlotte Pride Magazine content here, as well as finding distribution locations for our limited print run.

Heading into 2020, Equality North Carolina Executive Director Kendra Johnson planned a bold outreach strategy. North Carolina’s largest and oldest LGBTQ advocacy group and lobbying organization was poised to embrace the political year with its most ambitious ground game yet, capitalizing on in-person Pride events to spread its message and gain support for securing rights and protections for the state’s LGBTQ community.

“For example, the Triangle was going to have one of the largest fairs (Triangle EXPO for LGBTQ Aging Adults) that dealt with cradle-to-grave services for the LGBTQ plus community,” Johnson said. Equality NC intended to be a major sponsor of the event.

“And then COVID hit,” Johnson said.

Like similar advocacy organizations across the state, Equality NC had to adapt to an outreach landscape defined by safety measures put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Dangerous in-person events and face-to-face canvasing were eliminated or severely curtailed, and digital strategies – text banking, emails and virtual townhalls – were embraced to engage and energize constituents in what promised to be the most consequential political season of their lives.

Autumn Alston was in the midst of this virtual sea change.

Currently the intersectionality program manager for Freedom Center for Social Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for the safety and empowerment of the LGBTQ community, Alston volunteered for the Biden/Harris campaign for two months. She started out sending text messages for the campaign, which also utilized a remote phone bank, Alston said.

Alston had worked the phones before. The 30-year-old reckoned she’s worked campaigns, both national and local, for 13 years. In 2016, Alston was field organizer for the Hilary Clinton campaign, recruiting volunteers for the candidate’s presidential run. The differences between the two campaigns was striking, Alston said.

In 2016, 16 organizers were packed into an office, one of several throughout Charlotte. Within days, 50 volunteers flooded into the already crowded office.

“It was a different environment,” Alston said. “You could hear someone else’s phone calls, and you could talk about the experience that you just had, you could talk about the election.” With the Biden campaign there was no office at all, Alston offered.

“You had to be creative this time around generating excitement and camaraderie,” she said. “Most of the time you were doing your own thing.”

Both the Clinton and the Biden campaigns included staff and volunteers going door to door to engage prospective voters, but there were far more canvassing constraints this year. Face masks and social distancing on doorsteps were required.

“With previous campaigns, you could canvass in groups or partners, but not this time,” Alston says. “I had to go it alone.” Deprived of the opportunity to generate excitement amongst peers and people in the community, she did it virtually, taking pictures of herself knocking on doors or delivering T-shirts and posting the photos on social media.

“It gave people that election feel,” Alston said, “[it was] saying that things are happening in your neighborhood.”

Another innovation in 2020 were canvassing apps like Minivan, Alston offered, which negates the need for printed lists of routes and addresses by displaying the information on your phone.

While the mechanics of actually knocking on doors and talking face-to-face hasn’t changed, peoples’ reactions to the tactic have. Alston sensed apprehension from people that the canvassers were putting them at risk of COVID-19 exposure.

“I had the feeling that people were wondering, ‘Why are you here?’” she said.

“Before when you knocked on a door, you would worry that someone didn’t want to be bothered,” Alston said. “Now people were questioning how healthy and responsible we were being.”

As civic engagement organizer with Common Cause North Carolina, Trey Gibson did no phone banking and very little canvassing this year. Instead, the Charlotte-based grassroots activist advocated for safer election laws in North Carolina through texts and virtual meetings on Zoom. She felt both methods were effective in terms of accessibility.

“What was really challenging with all the digital engagement was the fact that the pandemic was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, especially when it [came to] Black and brown people who are being disproportionately affected by the virus,” Gibson said. Many people she contacted were not initially receptive to the nonprofit’s message. They were focused on issues like unemployment and food insecurity, which they did not connect to politics.

“I felt that [Common Cause NC] adding virtual meetings and conversations to the landscape, especially early on, was just mentally exhausting for a lot of people,” she said.

In 2018, before joining Common Cause NC, Gibson was an organizer for the Fight for Her (#Fight4Her) campaign, which was focused on overturning the federal government’s restrictive reproductive policy, often known as the “Global Gag Rule.” The campaign relied on canvassing, phone banking and the relatively new method of text banking, Gibson said.

Although texting was considered an afterthought for the #Fight4Her campaign two years ago, it has now supplanted other methods of outreach in terms of popularity with campaign workers, Gibson said. “The technology has improved. It’s gotten a lot easier to target folks and tailor the message to reach them.”

At Equality NC, Johnson embraced texting as the organization ramped up their digital game with a battery of new tools for 2020. The nonprofit hosted 23 virtual town halls that featured a slate of LGBTQ and pro-equality candidates for an array of offices across the state, Johnson said.

They produced 17 different videos featuring short conversations with the candidates, which were disseminated across Equality NC’s social media channels. They also hosted Facebook live events where people could have a one-on-one conversations with some of the 147 candidates the organization endorsed, including Gov. Roy Cooper.

“We sent out 541,000 text messages, made 10,000 calls, [and] we reached over 135,000 people on Facebook,” Johnson said.

Amid the virtual tools Johnson deployed, one traditional one was set aside – canvassing in person.

“We kept it all digital and social media,” Johnson said. Taking the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ directives to heart, Johnson determined she would not put any staff, volunteers and members of the public in harm’s way.

“We’ve already lost too many North Carolinians and too many Americans,” she said. “And we knew that the numbers were climbing in those months when we were doing the work.”

As early voting and election day approached, Johnson incorporated some safe and socially distanced in-person tactics. The 200 volunteers that were sending texts and making phone calls were reassigned to do poll work. They hit over 30 polling sites, Johnson said, distributing information and voting guides.

“In Charlotte, we had drag queens at the polls to greet folks,” she said. “Because we knew there were going to be instances of voter intimidation, we tried to make the voting experience as fun, friendly and supportive as we possibly could.”

Equality NC also handed out protective equipment in partnership with the North Carolina Black Alliance and Disability Rights North Carolina.

In 2020, COVID-19 has put North Carolina in near-lock down and has prompted anxiety about the public health emergency — and the pandemic is far from over. In response to the crisis, community organizers and advocacy groups have done more than shift gears, turning away from dangerous face-to-face forms of communication. They’ve embraced digital outreach, learning techniques they will use in a future not defined by the coronavirus.

Even though she cites studies that show canvassing is still the most effective way to get people to vote, Alston said we’ll see an increased shift to texting in the future, across all age ranges.

Alston pointed out that she personally prefers texts to phone calls. She never answers her phone, she said, and if campaigners want to reach younger voters, they should swap texts for calls to get engagement.

Digital and virtual events will be seen as an “ important part of outreach, and not just an icing on the cake,” she said.

“Back in 2016 we would do maybe one social media post a day, and that was tossed out. It was like, if you do it, good. If you don’t, whatever,” Alston offered. “Now, [social media] is a much better way to do things, because there are so many pockets of people that we’re missing if we always stick to the older tactics.”

Gibson said phone banking and the canvassing will still be used, because face-to-face interactions have proven to be effective in getting people to take action.

“We will certainly continue to do these things but we’ll also utilize digital outreach and engagement more, because they are accessible and have the potential to reach more people in less time.”

“We had to navigate COVID, and yet we had one of the most active political seasons in the history of the organization,” Johnson said. “We engaged more volunteers than we ever had in any campaign that we ever done.”

“This pandemic has shifted how all of us do our work,” Johnson said. “It has made us think about what is necessary and what is unnecessary.”