Political Activism: Bending the Rules

Political Activism: Bending the Rules

Kevin Whelan

Kevin Whelan argues that there’s not much difference between role-playing games and grass-roots political activism.

Canvassing Role-Plays

Sure, I played some Dungeons & Dragons as a young man. But I didn’t really begin to role-play on a daily basis until after college, when I became a full-time political activist.

After graduation I worked for, and then supervised, canvass operations for several different environmental groups. Canvassers are nice young people who come to your door with a clipboard, and with the goal of getting a check and your contact information for their organization - usually an environmental cause.

Canvassers always practice, always role-play, several “raps” every day before they leave go out to the doors. It is key that the people who are playing the “canvass-ees” in the role-play are trained to be good actors; they must throw up a realistic set of objections to the actor playing the canvasser, but in the end, they must be persuadable. (They must also refrain from venting all their frustrations on their fellow canvassers by replaying all of the most insulting and insurmountable comments from past doors. No one needs to practice having the door slammed in his or her face - that will happen on its own.)

A canvass rap, whether it is for the environment, gay rights, or any other issue, always has the same basic structure:

1. Problem. (For example: air pollution, and a description of why it is bad.)

2. Solution. (Strengthen the Clean Air Act, over the objections of big polluters.)

3. Strategy. (Get lots of grassroots support.)

4. Action. (Join our group/give money.)

Typically, canvassers practice raps by watching demonstrations and by practicing in pairs. They evaluate each other after each rap, on how well each person has used the basic skills of strong communication - eye contact, strong positive language, KISS (Keep it Short and Simple), targeting (asking for donations in specific amounts), and clipboard control (handing over the clipboard at just the right time to seal the deal).

The goals of the various role-plays are to teach canvassers to understand the structure of the rap, which allows her or him to always guide the conversation back to the desired conclusion - and to use the basic techniques of strong communication. It is the application of these skills, not the depth of a canvasser’s policy knowledge, which will induce the public to contribute to and join the organization. (Typically canvassers are trying to mobilize supporters; that is, trying to get the people who already agree with them to do something about it, rather than trying to change minds.)

There are a number of variations on basic canvass role-plays that are used to break the monotony of practice, such as everyone practicing just one part of the rap, or doing a complete rap on totally different (or fictional or comical) issue. For example, one day I practiced a rap that probably wouldn’t have really flown in the suburbs:

“Hi, I’m Kevin from the Anarchist Front for Creative Destruction - how are you tonight?”

To make the exercise work, the person playing the “door” had to go along with the absurdist scenario: “Fine, thanks.”

“The problem we are talking to people about tonight is the stupid waste of our lives in consumer society. A lot of your neighbors feel that they spend all their time working at jobs they hate, in order to get the money to buy things that are supposed to make them happy, but don’t. Do you ever feel that way?”

“Yes, I sure do.”

“Great. Well, the solution we are working on with the support of you and your neighbors is to create a new society, based on sharing and mutual aid. But to do that, we will first have to smash the State and bring down the capitalist system. Does that sound like something you support?”

“Definitely, yes.”

“Excellent. I know a lot of us want to see that happen. Our strategy at the Anarchist Front is creative destruction - by wreaking violence in a random and ruthless manner against all the institutions of consumption and repression, we can rend the social fabric of our oppressive society, and as things unravel, we can create a new society out of the ashes of the old. Can we count on you to be part of this?”

By practicing either a partial or absurd rap, the canvassers are able to focus on the skills and structure that are most important in determining the rap’s success.


For the past eight years, I have worked at ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the nation’s largest community organization of low-income families. ACORN’s community organizers do something that looks superficially very much like canvassing. That is, we knock on people’s doors, sign them up as members and collect membership dues. There are crucial differences, though.

First, ACORN organizers knock on doors in poor neighborhoods, not rich ones. More important, ACORN organizes people into local chapters that vote on what economic justice or community issue impacts them most directly on the local level. To address these issues, ACORN organizes “actions”: direct, nonviolent confrontations with people in power. The issues and actions start out very local - ACORN members might pick up litter in a neighborhood where the city neglects trash pickup, and deliver the bags of garbage to the mayor’s desk - but through a process of electing leaders to higher positions, we eventually tackle much bigger issues, like raising the state and federal minimum wages.

The ACORN organizing rap follows a structure that is similar to a canvass rap, in that it leads from a social problem to a particular action. But an organizing rap is arranged around a series of questions:

1. What would you like to see changed in your community?

2. Can I come in and talk to you about that? (Organizers usually sit down for a ten- to fifteen-minute conversation, which starts with a more detailed discussion of the problem and how it hurts the person/community.)

3. Why do you think the problem stays that way? (Here, with further prompting if necessary, the goal is to focus on the problem as an issue of power - a neighborhood being neglected because of its race or class makeup.)

4. How do you feel about that? (This step, “polarization,” is about getting people to get mad about the problem.)

5. What do you think it would take to solve the problem? (The goal is to build a vision of collective action - strength in numbers. Examples or leading questions may or may not be needed to get there: “If fifty of us went as a group and dumped that garbage on the mayor’s desk, would that get his attention?”)

6. Would you be willing to be a part of that? (And from here we reach the details of joining as a member - paying dues and participating in meetings and actions.)

Like canvassers, ACORN organizers also practice daily role-plays, but because the ACORN rap involves more talking by the community member than the organizer, the process requires some fairly sophisticated acting. The rules for the actor playing the community member are the same as in a canvassing role-play: you have to sign up in the end, and you can be difficult but not impossible. One of the most important skills for an organizer is to bring the conversation back to the structure, so that it leads to action. You can’t practice an exact script for ACORN organizing, because every conversation is different, but you can develop lots of techniques for steering a conversation back in a more productive direction.

In the field, organizing still calls upon all the players’ imaginations. A successful rap is one that invites a person to feel and express the emotions connected to a long-standing social problem, and to imagine and talk through a different reality, one in which they act in unity with their neighbors and have power.

The Rules

While there are rules for doing good organizing, success comes from both mastering those rules, and pushing or breaking them at the same time. As an example, let me talk briefly about my first experience of political role-playing, as a high schooler in the Model United Nations program.

In the Model U.N., high school students, in teams of two to seven, represent different countries of the world and attempt to win support for the foreign policies of that country (while getting to skip a couple days of school, stay in a hotel, and in our own nerdy way, party and flirt with our fellow delegates).

One year, my friends and I chose to stretch the rules of the game (or the imaginations of the administrator and the other participants) to make a political point. We announced that we would represent the Palestinian Liberation Organization, under the plausible scenario that it had shown up at the United Nations asking to be seated as the legitimate government-in-exile of the Palestinian people. (This was in 1987 or so, and the idea of Palestinian statehood was still a far-out position in American politics.)

We argued our case on the floor of the General Assembly, but also pushed the rules of the Model U.N. further by regularly issuing photocopied communiqués in the style of the first Palestinian Intifada. We succeeded in achieving our goal of getting seated, and made our point about the need for a voice and fair settlement for the Palestinians.

ACORN’s actions (protests directed at a specific target who has the power to deliver the change the community wants) play off of the same tension that my friends and I pushed at the Model U.N. Organizing means mastering the rules of the game in order to be able to first bend them in a educational way, and finally to alter them.

Effective direct action requires a thorough understanding of the local and national political and business structures - so we can find the public official who is really responsible and derelict in his duty. Then it requires creating enough public disruption to get our members to the table where decisions are made. There, members have the chance to hold the official accountable to the rules of fair play and honesty that politicians always profess. When it works, all the participants see themselves in a new light, and the community gets a benefit that it had previously been denied.