Deep Canvassing: The Proven Method to Change Hearts and Minds! Do you want to have compassionate, non-judgmental conversations across lines of difference? This session introduces the core components of deep canvassing.

People's Action

Our History

1964

Freedom Summer

In high school, Heather Tobis (who later marries Paul Booth, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society and the Chicago Citizens Action Program) joins the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to protest racial discrimination. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she travels to Mississippi to register Black voters and set up freedom schools and libraries with Mary Lou Hamer and other organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Our founders shared the strategy of  “Neighborhoods First”: they organized around what matters most at the local level. Some call this “Stopsign” organizing: win something you need on your block or street. Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp wanted to stop redlining in Chicago, when banks refused to lend in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Lois Gibbs wanted to clean up toxic waste after she discovered her Niagara Falls neighborhood, Love Canal, was built on top of a chemical waste dump. 

I don’t know why I should be intimidated.
— Gale Cincotta
1967

Gale and Shel Forge Their Relationship

Gale Cincotta got started in organizing in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago through the PTA because her youngest son’s elementary school was severely overcrowded. Shel Trapp was a Methodist minister for seven years and active in civil rights before leaving to become a community organizer at the Organization for a Better Austin (OBA). Gale and Shel met in 1967 and started organizing around school and housing issues. In 1968, Gale was elected the first woman president of OBA, the first for an organization founded by organizer Saul Alinsky. Gale and Shel founded the National Training and Information Center (NTIC) and National People’s Action (NPA), and helped pass the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to reinvest in neighborhoods they had targeted with discriminatory lending.

When we organize, we can change the world.
— Heather Booth
1969

Expanded Housing Organizing

Gale and Shel, together with thousands of community leaders at OBA, Northwest Community Organization, and Our Lady of Angels founded the West Site Coalition to deal with redlining, blockbusting and panic peddling happening across neighborhoods.

Now is the time for the knock-out punch. The bankers are on the ropes.
— Shel Trapp
Shel with organizers
The First Conference convened at St. Sylvester’s Church in Chicago.
We’ve found the enemy and it’s not us.
— Gale Cincotta
1972

The First Conference

368 community groups from 38 states sent 1,600 delegates to the First National Housing conference in Chicago. Senator Charles Percy, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and presidential candidate George McGovern all attend. Follow-up meeting in Baltimore forms National People’s Action on Housing (NPAH) and the Housing Training and Information Center (HTIC). The HTIC board votes to hire Cincotta as Executive Director, Trapp as Training Director, and Anne-Marie Douglas as secretary.

NPAH and HTIC’s first national action is in Washington, D.C., where it targets HUD Secretary George Romney.

Neighborhood organizers soon realized the problems they faced were systemic, so needed national solutions. Starting in 1972, they organized national gatherings, which live on today as the People’s Action national conventions, and campaigns which led to policy victories that include the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to reinvest in neighborhoods they had excluded, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) and Superfund, which forced polluters to pay to clean up toxic waste.

1973

Midwest Academy Founded

Fired for organizing clerical workers in Chicago, Heather Booth uses money from her NLRB settlement to found the Midwest Academy, to mix lessons of the freedom schools and civil rights struggle with the skills of community organizing, and put training and strategic planning at the center of the movement for social justice. The academy’s founding goals are to combine the vision and spirit of progressive movements with the practical skills of grassroots organizing, to elevate the role of women in organizing, forge a path to progressive change through multi-state organizations for the emerging labor, women’s rights, and environmental movements, and create a comprehensive training program that provides organizers with the fundamental skills needed to build and sustain power.

Midwest Academy provides training to Citizen Action groups and many others and helps initiate multi-issue statewide organizing groups, a unique coalition approach with an emphasis on deeper organizing and community labor alliances.

1975

Passing the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA)

Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) holds committee hearings on S1281, HMDA. Cincotta testified before Representative St Germain’s sub-committee in favor of HMDA. Cincotta is the only Community person invited to testify on FHA abuses before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Banking & Urban Affairs and U.S. House Committee on Banking Operations Sub-committee on Manpower & Housing. HMDA passes Senate 45 to 37, and a December 12th Joint committee resolves HMDA bill which passes the Senate again on December 15th and the House on December 18th. President Ford signed the HMDA on January 3, 1976. For good measure, Illinois passed the Fairness and Lending Bill making redlining illegal in the State of Illinois; legislation requires disclosure of savings and lending data and limits relocation of savings and loan associations.

1973-75

Winning the FHA Payback Program and Enacting Anti-Redlining Laws

13 Chicago groups form the Metropolitan Area Housing Alliance (MAHA) to address citywide housing issues. They meet with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago and Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which forces mortgage surveys and results in a report, “Study of the Factors of Risk in Urban Mortgage Lending,” by the FSLIC. Chicago passes a Disclosure Ordinance requiring anti-redlining pledges from banks seeking city funds. The Illinois legislature passes laws prohibiting redlining and requiring disclosure. After two years of fighting, homebuyers under FHA’s Sections 203 and 221 can be reimbursed for the cost of repairing structural defects as part of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. Illinois amends its savings & loan rules to prohibit redlining, a first in the country. 

Neighborhood organizing is the alive and well and operating at a national level to boot. And at the other end of that boot are the politicians, speculators, and bankers who have been kicking us around for so long.
— Gale Cincotta
1977

Passing the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA)

CRA legislation in Congress with hearings held in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, and New York. Sixth Annual “State of the Neighborhoods” Conference held in D.C. with 2,500 people from 109 cities; delegates are angry that HUD has made no new appointments to regional/area offices after President Carter calls HUD “biggest slumlord” in country; “action” taken to occupy office of Patricia Roberts Harris, Secretary of HUD. Cincotta supports passage of a bill to create the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation that will expand the Urban Reinvestment Task Force’s Neighborhood Housing Services program nationally campaigns to prod and entice the private sector to invest in communities. October 12th, CRA S. 406 passes as Title VIII of Housing and Community Development Act, effective November 6th, 1978. CRA is the 15! national structural reform to be won through neighborhood organizing that ties back to the work of Saul Alinsky.

1978

Love Canal

The story of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) starts with Lois Gibbs in Niagara Falls, New York. In 1978, Lois was struggling to raise a family that included two children suffering from a variety of rare illnesses. Nearly every family in the now-infamous Love Canal neighborhood was facing its own medical nightmare. When Lois discovered that her home and those of her neighbors sat beside 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, she led her community in a three-year struggle to protect their families from the hazardous waste buried in their backyards. Lois and her neighbors developed the strategies and methods to educate and organize the community, assess the impacts of toxic wastes on their health, and challenge corporate and government policies on the dumping of hazardous materials. 833 Love Canal households were relocated but 20,000 tons of waste are still buried there.

I wanted to be the best mom possible. Then I discovered the dump. The government wouldn’t help me, so I decided to do it myself.
— Lois Gibbs
1978-79

The ABA and the "Battle Of New Orleans"

Intent on protecting the legislation leaders fought so hard to win, NPA pushes for renewal of the Community Reinvestment Act and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. NPA leaders march American Bankers Association (ABA) President John Perkins out of the hall at their annual conference in D.C., after he gives a lukewarm response to NPA demands. The next day, leaders take over the ABA’s Washington boardroom and demand to be placed on the ABA agenda at the bankers’ convention in New Orleans that fall. NPA then stages the “Battle of New Orleans” at the ABA convention, after NPA leaders are denied a chance to talk to the banks about HMDA. They meet bankers outside their convention hall and at social functions, including onboard a riverboat the ABA had chartered for a cruise, during three days of non-stop actions. The next February, the ABA tells the Senate Banking Committee it no longer opposes the renewal of HMDA.

1979

Citizen Action Founded

In December 1979, organizers from five state organizations came together with Midwest Academy, C/LEC, and the Cooperative Alliance to found Citizen Action. Citizen Action organizers and leaders came out of the civil rights, women’s movements, student movements, consumer rights, community organizing, the anti-war movement, and feminist movements of the previous two decades. A national strategy was needed to advance a progressive populist economic agenda that could unite majorities and address white backlash to civil rights. The focus of the founding state coalitions was multiracial working-class organizing on majoritarian economic issues. The founding groups are Massachusetts Fair Share, Illinois Public Action Council, Ohio Public Interest Campaign, Oregon Fair Share, and Indiana Citizen Action Coalition. Others soon join as well: New Hampshire People’s Alliance, Pennsylvania Public Interest Campaign, and Minnesota COACT, eventually reaching 36 statewide groups at its peak.

1980

Superfund Becomes Law

Superfund legislation, which forces polluters to pay to clean up toxic waste sites, passes as a direct result of the efforts of the “Mother of Superfund,” Lois Gibbs, and her neighbors at Love Canal. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, or Superfund, is designed to grant authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, and Native American tribes to manage and clean up the nation’s most dangerous waste sites. Superfund gives the EPA the responsibility to address acute local and national environmental emergencies that threaten public health and the environment. Most importantly, Superfund creates a system where polluters have to pay for the messes they create. The EPA identifies the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) that created hazardous sites and requires them to fund and/or manage the cleanups.

To turn back the tide of the Reagan Revolution, People’s Action’s legacy organizations launched larger, more visible campaigns like “Reclaim America” and the “Showdown in Chicago,” which brought together National People’s Action (NPA) and the Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition (C/LEC) in a fight to keep energy prices down. C/LEC was started by Heather Booth, who was one of the first to build statewide, not just local, organizations, and to partner with organized labor.

In order to protect public health from chemical contamination, there needs to be a massive outcry - a choir of voices - by the American people demanding change.
— Lois Gibbs
1981

The Center for Health, Environment, & Justice is Born

To ensure that no other community would have to face a toxic health threat alone, Lois Gibbs founds the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, now known as the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice (CHEJ). Lois realized that no local, state, or national organization existed to provide communities with the strategic advice, guidance, and technical assistance necessary to win such a battle on their own. Since 1981, CHEJ has helped more than 15,000 groups—comprising roughly 2.25 million people—successfully fight environmental health threats across the country. 

1984

National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards

On February 13, 1984, with simultaneous news conferences in Washington, D.C., and fifty-four other cities, a coalition of more than one hundred groups organized by Citizen Action, Clean Water Action Project, and the Citizens’ Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste (now CHEJ) announces the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards. In 1985 the campaign fought for changes in the Superfund to make it more effective, then stopped the Reagan administration and the chemical industry from weakening the Superfund with a federal Right-to-Know standard that would have pre-empted stronger state and local laws. In more than 200 congressional districts, organizers made the fight over Superfund an issue in the 1984 elections. Many opponents of increases in funding for federal cleanup switch their positions. In 1984, over twelve million homes were contacted about toxic waste and the fight for Superfund through Citizen Action canvasses.

1984

Turning Back The Tide of Reaganism at The Ballot Box

Citizen Action argues for the combination of organizing with elections, a controversial position in 1980, with a speech Heather Booth gives called “Left with the Ballot Box.” She initiated the electoral-focused State and Local Leadership Project that taught many organizations how to run electoral campaigns and build ongoing power within our organizations to ensure accountability and support, where needed, after the campaign. Citizen Action recruits and elects over 100 candidates and works in many other campaigns often providing the margin of victory with our canvass and popular base. Midwest Academy holds annual “advances” that develop the progressive populist vision and agenda that ground the issue and electoral work. Also launching at this time is the Citizen Leadership Foundation, one of the largest voter registration efforts in the U.S.

1986

The Right to Know

By the summer of 1985, more than sixty local communities and thirty states had passed Right-to-Know legislation, with core support from CHEJ and Citizen Action. These laws require local industries to report their emissions of certain toxic chemicals and enable people to find out what chemicals were being released, stored, and disposed of in their communities. This locally-tailored data was often crucial to groups’ cleanup efforts. As local successes accumulated, so did the pressure for federal action; the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (commonly referred to as Right-to-Know) law was passed by Congress. Right to Know chief sponsor Rep. Bob Edgar (D-PA) worked with PA Citizen Action to win a primary for the US Senate on the strength of this win.

1991

Emergency Drive for Healthcare

Citizen Action, Jobs with Justice, and Families USA launch a campaign for universal quality health care with five ambulance caravans that stop in all forty-eight contiguous states, holding press conferences and rallies in each. The national campaign is modeled after an action by Citizen Action of New York, in which ambulances from throughout the state converged in Albany. The campaign kicked off on September 19th in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis, with all of the ambulances converging in Washington, D.C. on October 10th with a huge rally and hundreds of thousands of postcards, letters, and petitions demanding universal quality health care. Citizen Action and state affiliates are at the center of the fight for universal health care, with an impressive list of state-level victories. Citizen Action wins several policy fights with the Clinton administration and Congress, and meets in the Cabinet Room with the Health Care Task Force’s Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and others, and moves numerous members of Congress to support universal quality healthcare.

As Wall Street’s grip on the economy grows, National People’s Action fights to defend and expand the Community Reinvestment Act, and keep pressure on the Federal Housing Administration to stop funding lenders with high foreclosure rates. Citizen Action and its state affiliates lead an eight-year battle for universal quality health care, which ends with the defeat of the Health Care Security Act in 1994. In 1996, Citizen Action raises millions of dollars to turn out the vote to win back Congressional seats from the radical Republicans whose “Contract with America” led to multiple government shutdowns.

2003-04

National Voter Registration Campaign

USAction conducts a massive nonpartisan voter registration effort in eighteen states that results in 500,000 new registered voters. This puts USAction on the map among national progressive organizations, and is the main focus of many statewide affiliates in 2004. For example, Maine People’s Alliance registers 12,000 people in 2004, a previously unheard-of level of political engagement in the state (there were a total of 916,139 eligible voters that year, making this effort a historic increase in eligible voters of 1.3% in the state that year).

Midwest Academy sets up Fund For the Future, raising money to bring together the members of Citizen Action, which closes its doors in 1997, with independent statewide organizations and organized labor, including AFSCME, CWA, and SEIU. Together, they found USAction and the USAction Education Fund in 1999. 

When NPA cofounder Gale Cincotta dies on August 15, 2001, in her last words to organizers Joe Mariano and Alicia Mendoza she asks them to “Get the crooks!”

 NPA hires Sulma Arias as its first organizer for workers’ and immigrant rights in 2003. In 2007, under its new director, George Goehl, NPA launches a “Save The American Dream” campaign, with direct actions at the home and office of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to demand action for homeowners facing foreclosure, at HUD to end the demolition of public housing, and at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to reduce the naturalization backlog which held hundreds of thousands of immigrants hostage.

2004

PVC Campaign

The PVC Campaign is launched, raising the public’s awareness of the health hazards posed by PVC and convincing businesses to incorporate safer materials into their products and packaging. In 2005, CHEJ’s PVC campaign, in collaboration with a nationwide network, convinced Crabtree & Evelyn, Target, Sears, Kmart, Microsoft, J.C. Penney, Best Buy and other corporations to phase out PVC out of their products and packaging. In 2008, thanks to advocacy from CHEJ and its network of grassroots environmental organizations and allies, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was passed and signed into law. This Act permanently bans the sale, after February 10, 2009, of toys and child care products that contain certain phthalates and lead. The law phases out PVC, phthalates, and BPA in products and packaging, transforming consumer purchases and dividing the chemical industry lobby.

2007

The National Healthcare Campaign

Health Care for America Now was conceived in a January 2007 meeting in the Washington, D.C., office of USAction with Richard Kirsch (Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action of NY), Jeff Blum (ED of USAction), and Alan Charney (Political Director of USAction). Private health insurance would need to be regulated, to stop companies from discriminatory practices like refusing to cover people with preexisting conditions or charging more for people who have health problems. And Medicare’s benefit package would need to be brought up to the level of private insurance, including offering prescription drug coverage and limiting out-of-pocket costs. This became the blueprint for the HCAN statement of principles that founding members USAction, SEIU, and AFCME used to recruit the AFL-CIO, Center for Community Change (now Community Change), Campaign for America’s Future, Moveon.org, and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (now Alliance for a Just Society). The campaign recruits over 1,000 national and state groups. 

Health care is a public good, not a commodity.
— Richard Kirsch
2010

Winning The Passage of The Affordable Care Act

HCAN organizes millions of people to take action over three years, culminating in the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, legislation that now covers thirty-two million Americans and saves thousands of lives each year. HCAN brings a large number of major national organizations into a well-financed, strategic campaign that mobilizes Americans at the grassroots through a field campaign powered by existing state and local organizing groups. USAction, ACORN, Community Change, and NWFCO collaborate on a joint field plan that maximized their collective and individual strengths. From the national director to the national field director and the most active state groups, USAction played a central role in the campaign and victory.

On April 29, 2010, in the wake of the nationwide financial crisis, over 15,000 people take to the streets in lower Manhattan, with surprise actions in advance at bank headquarters in midtown as part of a “Showdown on Wall Street” organized by NPA and the AFL-CIO. This is the biggest demonstration to date by labor and community forces to demand financial reform that benefits workers and neighborhoods, not just banks. Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), with Heather Booth as its founding director, leads the fight to pass the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Reform Act. 

It will take a massive effort to move society from corporate domination. To win, we will need to keep building the movement, networking with one another, planning, strategizing, and moving forward. Our children's futures, and those of their unborn children, are at stake.
— Lois Gibbs
2016

Mergers Create People's Action and People's Action Institute

Large national networks of grassroots member organizations and advocacy groups vote to create People’s Action (501c4) and the People’s Action Institute (501c3), a single network with the power to fight at a national scale to advance structural solutions for the economic and racial inequities that underpin problems faced by local communities. This new network has more than a million members in 40 states, and the merger includes National People’s Action and the National People’s Action Campaign, USAction and the USAction Education Fund, the Campaign and Institute for America’s Future, the Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ), Community Organizations in Action (COA), and the Alliance for a Just Society (AJS). A total of nine national organizations (five 501c3 and four 501c4) unite through this merger. AJS and COA leave this alliance in 2018.

2017

People’s Action Founding Convention

The newly formed People’s Action launches powerful issue campaigns that reflect the concerns of our members: Health Care for All, People and Planet First, Housing Justice, and Overdose Crisis. More than a thousand leaders from the organizations that merged to form our national network come to Washington, D.C. for the founding convention. 72 People’s Action members take a pledge onstage with Sen. Bernie Sanders to run for office, guided by the principles of the “Rise Up” platform. These include racial equity, gender equity, an economy that works for all of us, truly representative democracy, dignity at work, ending mass incarceration and rebuilding our communities, health care as a human right, climate justice, education equity, and a just immigration system. “Let me begin by thanking the People’s Action network for making the political revolution,” Sanders said. “You are what the revolution looks like!”

2019

March on The Environmental Protection Agency

As part of the People’s Action national convention in Washington, D.C.,CHEJ leads a delegation of 800 community leaders to EPA headquarters to demand that EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler meet with them to hear their stories. As a result of this protest, the EPA agrees to meet with leadership and listen to their demands. CHEJ then launches the No More Sacrifice Zones campaign to organize people who are poisoned by corporate greed and environmental injustice and at high risk for COVID-19 complications to lead a national effort that ends the sacrificing of their families and our planet.

2021

Vaccine Justice

Members from People’s Action groups come to New York City from across the country – Maine, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, Alabama and six other states –  where they blocked traffic at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals’ 42nd Street headquarters with members of Justice is Global’s End the Pandemic Everywhere coalition to demand vaccines for all. This pressure opens the door to the distribution of patent-free COVID vaccines, millions of doses of which have since been distributed worldwide.

People’s Action launches its Movement Politics Program in 2016 to train and encourage movement leaders as they seek public office, and support them once elected through mobilization and promoting policy initiatives.  In 2017, our Rural and Small Town Organizing Cohort knocks on 392,000 doors of rural voters and conducts deep canvass experiments to change hearts and minds about immigration. The success of these experiments lays the groundwork for 2020, when People’s Action hosts People’s Presidential Forums in Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa, and we train more than 25,000 volunteers who hold more than 200,000 deep canvass conversations in the 2020 presidential election that make a significant contribution to electing President Joe Biden. In 2022, Sulma Arias returns to People’s Action and the People’s Action Institute as our new executive director.