Episode 2: Learning How to Listen – Michigan
Our first stop is Michigan, where deep listening animates the immigration work of Michigan United, a People’s Action affiliate. George visits with Ryan Bates, director of Michigan United, and Caitlin Homrich-Kneilen, a native of The Thumb, and the leader of Michigan United’s Hometown Voices program. Caitlin organizes volunteers and staff to go door to door, meeting constituents — many of them older and white — where they’re at, and fostering conversations with radical empathy.
Just as Caitlin herself has discovered, deep listening helps us rediscover the dignity of everyone’s experience, and helps us rediscover ourselves, as well.
The founding director of Michigan United, the statewide coalition of 100 organizations working together for economic and racial justice. Previously, Ryan worked with Reform Immigration For America, where he led organizing across the Midwest for comprehensive immigration reform. With the Michigan House Democrats, Ryan oversaw 4 successful top-tier races for State House.
Ryan has also been an organizer for the Michigan Raise the Wage Coalition, Environment Michigan, and the Gamaliel Foundation.
He is a native of the Detroit-area and a graduate of the University of Michigan.
Learn more: National Partnership for New Americans
Caitlin is a community organizer who runs the Hearts and Minds canvass at Michigan United. Trained in anthropology, Caitlin received her BA from Central Michigan University and her MA from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since she joined Michigan United, she has organized allies in the Rranxburgaj Family Sanctuary Campaign, led a volunteer canvass that flipped state house district 19, and started the Michigan Hometown Voices rural & small town listening campaign to expand the organization’s membership to rural communities.
Learn more: NIIC New American Dreams
This is to see each other where we explore how people are reshaping small town America, and why writing it off as Trump country hurts us all.
I’m George Goehl and today we’re traveling to Michigan where we hear how our politics are separating us from our neighbors, from our families, from our friends and how listening can bring us back together again.
Michigan’s an amazing place. Most people don’t know this, but Michigan has more coastline than all but two states. There’s so much beauty throughout the state.
I remember growing up in Southern Indiana. Our big vacation was to put the bikes on the back of my mom’s Mazda GLC, and me and my mom and my brother would drive up to Michigan and camp for a week. We’d camp close to Lake Michigan. And as a kid, it was a big deal to go to a Lake that big. For me and my brother might as well have been the Pacific Ocean.
Later in life I learned Michigan is the cradle of the labor movement and the middle class. It’s where Rosa Parks lived and led for nearly 50 years. And Martin Luther King gave the first draft of his I Have A Dream Speech.
It’s also home of the Michigan militia and the birthplace of the Republican Party. It’s a state of immense wealth and deep poverty, often not that far from one another. The past 40 years have been really hard on working class people of all races in places like Michigan. Plants have shut down. Unions have been weakened and the kind of jobs that help millions move into the middle class have been shipped overseas or replaced by automation. It should come as no surprise that people are trying to make meaning of these shifts and the new hardships in their lives. In many parts of Michigan, the people informing how people understand these changes are conservative and the right seized on the opportunity to paint the villain in this story as people of color and immigrants.
Politically speaking, Michigan has been part of what folks call the Blue Firewall. A set of states that Democrats have depended on to win presidential elections. You have to remember that until 2016, Democratic presidential candidates had won Michigan’s electoral votes, six elections in a row. It’s a state President Obama won in 2008 by over 800,000 votes. And in 2012 by half a million votes. In 2016, that firewall did not hold.
Donald Trump won the state by 10,000 votes. I’ll never forget that night. I just thinking there’s no reason Donald Trump needed to win Michigan. It felt like as a collective, we had failed there. So soon after the election, we started to talk about how we reinvest in rural and small town organizing. The first meeting was in Michigan, hosted by Michigan United. Michigan United is a statewide coalition of labor, business, social service and civil rights leaders that brings the working people of Michigan together. And it’s an affiliate of People’s Action. We met at a church. Organizers from across the country. We started with what we knew, that rural people in America did not feel heard or seen. To be clear, most people in this country don’t feel heard or seen and we know this. And we think the best organizing starts with listening.
So we went out, knocked on doors in rural communities across the country, and we listened and we asked people what issues they cared about and who and what they saw as responsible for declining conditions. And people really appreciated being asked. We heard over and over some version of you know what, nobody’s ever asked me before. And then we did what organizers do.
Across the country, in the wake of an incredible divisive election, we brought people together. We focused on the issues people cared about and we won change. We won expanded healthcare, opioid relief and better jobs and wages. And yet we kept running into one challenge over and over. People who would wear the organization t-shirt, pay their dues and show up to fight on the issues would also say, you know what? I just can’t get with you on immigration. And in Michigan, that meant a huge divide, particularly in rural areas. While immigrants make up 7% of the state’s population, 95% of Michigan’s rural populations is white.
So we knew we had to address it, which is how the Deep Canvas conversations, focusing on immigration came about. To start, People’s Action rolled out the Deep Canvas in three states, including Michigan.
Deep Canvassing is not your traditional door knocking campaign. It’s not a campaign at all. These are longer conversations and they require a radical empathy, an ability to start where people are at without judgment. We ask people why they feel the way they do and we share how we think about this subject and how that thinking came to be. We don’t try to persuade people. These sorts of intimate conversations also require a faith in people’s ability to re-examine things if given the right context. It requires letting go of the politics of divide and conquer. And the idea that isolating ourselves keeps us safer.
This didn’t always go well. There was one night while I was out canvassing where I swear Sean Hannity answered the door, five doors in a row. But on the best days, the conversations were transformative. Not just for the people on whose door we knocked, but for ourselves, as you’ll hear later in this episode.
And we know that these conversations have a true impact. We teamed up on this project with David Brockman and Josh Kalla of UC Berkeley and Yale. Brockman and Kalla are experts on these kinds of conversations and helped design the research component. And we found that the people we spoke with move significantly from not supporting undocumented immigrants, to supporting them. Proof that listening, truly listening was more effective than paid political advertising or campaigns. And that significant shift stuck for months after this one conversation.
People are really suffering. They’re watching their towns and their livelihoods fall apart. They’re watching people die from depths of despair and they’re turning to, in many cases, the only voices that are talking to them, which is Sean Hannity.
I sat down with Ryan Bates, the director of Michigan United. I first heard tell of Ryan when he was starting to build the organization with a focus on immigrant rights. He didn’t have an office or a staff, but he was building Michigan United out of the back of his car.
The progressive movement has not tried to talk to people in small town and rural areas and give them an accounting of why their world has changed and who’s to blame and what we should be doing instead. And if the only voice they’re hearing is Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, we shouldn’t be surprised when folks are voting for racial resentment, instead of economic progress and social solidarity. So one of the conclusions that we came to coming out of the 2016 election was, someone needs to go talk to working class and poor people in rural areas and small towns. Because if those folks aren’t being asked to join us, they’re going to go join Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
And we have no one to blame, but ourselves, if they follow the only leadership they’ve been given. So we started out last year by going out and doing a door-to-door canvas, knocking on doors in small towns and trailer parks and talking to people about what they cared about that mattered to them and what they were suffering through. And we were also testing out whether we can have real conversations about race and Caitlin and her team have just done a fantastic job and they’ve uncovered just amazing stories.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X called on well-meaning white people to go to the front lines of where racism exists. And that’s in their own communities. There are a growing number of white organizers doing just that and Caitlin Homrich-Knieling is one of those organizers. These organizers see their home community experiencing some very big things all at once and into an economy that allows the next generation to do better than the last, being played with by the political right, misunderstood by the political left and misrepresented by the media. When People’s Action decided to up our efforts in rural communities, not everyone got it. But one person who certainly did was Caitlin. When I first met Caitlin she was an immigrant rights organizer with Michigan United focused on Detroit. A role she loved and was damn good at. And yet she felt called to bring organizing to her home community and rural communities like it. She’s here today to share her story.
I grew up in a rural area in a woods about eight miles out of town in a part of Michigan that we called The Thumb. It was just like magical place where we had 10 acres and our trailer sat in the middle of it. There was a small clearing of the trees my dad had cleared when he bought the property. And I could go exploring through the woods and come out on the other side in a sugar beet field or in a corn field. Or we could go across the road, the dirt gravel road and pick their blackberries and walk and find the creek and look at toads and fish. My mom’s family had been in The Thumb for generations. I think they’d moved to The Thumb sometime in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.
My dad’s family, his dad and mom, my grandma and Papa, they actually grew up in Detroit, for the most part. They got married and they moved to a suburb of Detroit called Royal Oak. And that’s where my dad was born. And he grew up there until he was about 10 and then in 1970. So it was like right after the ’68 race riots, they call it the Detroit rebellion now. And a couple of years after that with increasing integration, my Papa decided to move the family up into The Thumb. And as I got older, I became familiar with cities in Michigan, like Ann Arbor because my aunt lived there and my cousins who were older girl cousins, and they were so cool. And Ann Arbor was this hip university town and I was like, “Wow, I want to become a lawyer and go to Ann Arbor.”
And that sentiment of wanting to get away grew throughout my childhood and teenage years. The first time I voted in 2012, I drove from college back home two and a half hours to vote, because I didn’t… I wanted to vote there and I split my ticket. I had such a mistrust of government and I just felt like they were screwing us all by both parties, that they were these elites and that I was going to try and gridlock them. That was what I thought I was doing with my vote. So I voted for Obama for President, and then every other position after that, I flipped between Democrat and Republican. I was probably 20 years old, almost 21. I had learned about racism. At that point, I felt very passionate about ending racism. I learned about economic inequality and I had started to do research in my hometown and my school as part of an honors project, about how schools are underfunded.
And so I had this very detailed analysis around injustices, but I hadn’t mapped those onto the parties. I’ve mapped it onto bottom versus top. And the people who are running for office were at the top. 2015 and 2016, I started like, and even 2014, like Black Lives Matter really took off. But the racial study group that I was in, sometimes our homework was to have a conversation with somebody in our life about racism. And so I was doing those things and it was always resulting in hard feelings or I was basically calling people racist and not really engaging with them in any other way. That was causing a lot of distance. So I saw how I was contributing to people feeling resentful of liberal elites.
Also, things were heating up with the election. And I was seeing people who initially were mocking Trump for running for office, were now going to vote for Trump, mostly because of the abortion issue, but also some people because of immigration or because of racial politics. There’s like a backlash to Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Party. Some of those people were just like sick of politics, but felt so insulted by the Democratic Party that they were going to vote Republican.
So Caitlin came home. She found Michigan United and she began organizing and listening. The theologian, David Lochhead speaks of true listening in sharing as a way of knowing truth that neither party possesses prior to the dialogue. The work of the Deep Canvas is to create shared understanding grounded in actual lived experience without judgment. The side effect in these days of division and separation anti-immigrant policies and racist politics, the practice of listening and Deep Canvas brought together, not just the canvas in the canvasser, but also Caitlin back to her family and friends.
So Deep Canvassing, I mean, I think you would assume that people would feel put off by the stranger asking what it was like for them to be a single mom 20 years ago or what it was like for them to have to make decisions to go to work instead of taking care of their kids when they were sick or instead of taking their kids to the doctor’s still sending them to school. You’d think that they would feel that a stranger should not be asking them those questions.
But if you have the courage to ask, people for the most part are willing to tell you, and for a lot of people, it’s a transformative experience because nobody’s ever asked them questions like that. Not even their closest loved ones or best friends. The very first conversation we had as part of this project, we kind of had a script with this first door that we went to, but it was really a mess. We just knew we needed to ask questions to get his story and what he was connecting with immigrants. So his name was Ed and I had two volunteers with me, Susan and Zara. And they were just going to observe and I was scared shitless because I had no idea what I was doing.
So we asked Ed, “How do you feel about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on a scale of zero to ten, where ten is definitely, and zero is definitely not. And five is undecided.” “I’m a 10,” Ed says. Okay, “Well, what about if it included undocumented immigrants?” He went off about how undocumented immigrants didn’t deserve it and how that makes him want to put himself at a zero. I asked him if he knew any immigrants and he didn’t.
Then I asked him, when’s a time in his life when he’s really needed care or support? And he started telling me about how he wasn’t too happy with where his life was. Like, he’s glad that he is where he is now in this trailer park in Oakland County. But he thought he was going to go a lot further. And he didn’t because, instead, he had struggled with addiction to the extent that he was incarcerated, that he was homeless for several years. And I just kept asking questions about that experience, about what happened and what it felt like and what his relationship was to his family at that time.
He shared about how his dad had been disappointed in him. And then he realized he did know an immigrant. His dad was an immigrant. His dad was an immigrant from England. And he worked in factories in England as a child and immigrated to the United States for a better life. And I kind of made the case to him that the immigrants coming over here and him have a lot more in common. This economy is hard and this world is hard and they’re just wanting to do what’s best for their families. And he agreed. So by the end of the conversation, he’d changed his mind completely. That was the first conversation. It was incredible. I cried a little bit, like I was tearing up and Susan and Zara and I looked at each other afterwards, like dried our eyes. And our heads kind of shaking or nodding, just incredulous, disbelief. It was just amazing.
I think I’ve learned that when you’re talking to a voter, you’re strangers, you’re starting out with a blank slate. And in that conversation, we’re showing them so much care and empathy about their own hard times and asking so many questions about their own life. We really honor their story and their wisdom and their dignity. And I realized that I’m not starting out on a blank slate with a lot of my loved ones and a lot of my friends and family members. I have not 100% honored their dignity and their experiences and their wisdom, and that has damaged their trust in me. So I realized I needed to rebuild my relationships with a lot of my loved ones. So one of my best friends who I had kind of stopped talking to after the 2016 election, because we were just increasingly, we’re having tense arguments about Black Lives Matter or about immigration and then Trump and his election.
And it just got to be too hard and we fought too much and we’re out of touch with each other’s lives. And with being pregnant now, she has been reaching out to me a lot. She’s been one of the first people I wanted to tell that I found out I’m having a boy. It’s been really sweet to rebuild that relationship. And I have learned from the Deep Canvas that I need to honor her experiences and wisdom a lot more before we’re ready to broach the topic of immigration again. And then when I do, I have one shot before I become preachy and condescending.
I have had an interesting situation with my mom. She kind of confessed to me a couple months ago that she was considering voting for Trump this time. She, who’s always voted for a Democrat, always voted for the underdog. On election day, 2016, texted me, may the best woman win. She kind of confessed that to me and I was not sure what to do. I was shocked and immediately defensive and like, “Oh my gosh, my working class, feminist idol.” What I’ve learned was to not respond yet, to just let those emotions pass. I can’t have that conversation with her in that moment because I’m reacting, so emotionally. When you’re canvassing, you learn. You have to let go of what they think of you and you got to be ready to give up a lot. And when it’s your mom, that’s giving up a lot. So I just let it sit. And I brought it up a couple of weeks later. I told her that I appreciated her telling me, and I asked her what it was like for her to tell me because she had justified it as being about the stock market.
Because her and my dad started investing in the stock market when they, I think, after they moved from the trailer to the house. And I think for the first time last year, she was starting to feel like maybe she wasn’t going to be an underdog anymore. Maybe she would be able to retire at a reasonable age and she just wanted that to continue. And she thought Trump could make it continue. Because he’s the one who made it go soaring in 2019. So I asked her what it felt like, what it was like for her telling me that. And she said she was really surprised that I didn’t freak out. I think I’m exploring most with how to have these conversations with my mom. But first I’m still growing our relationship to the point where we have that sort of intimacy. I think when my friend, my best friend texted me asking, “So I’m not prying, but how did the ultrasound go? You don’t have to tell me anything, but at least tell me the baby’s healthy.”
I think that made me really hopeful that like, I think that’ll stay with me for years. And also my mom opening up to me and I mean, knocking on doors keeps me hopeful. I’m my most hopeful when I’m walking outside in a canvas shift in the sun. Especially if it’s on the water.
I wish I could say I anticipated Deep Canvassing in the neighborhood would teach us how to reconnect with their families. That it makes sense that it does. We’ve just not been given the skills to have these conversations. We either avoid them or get into them in all the wrong ways. The Caitlin story, to me, is a reminder of what’s possible, both politically and personally, when we listen.
I caught up with Caitlin recently to see how the conversations with her family and friends progressed through the pandemic and through the protests of the summer. She told me how she had used deep listening to have conversations about police killings and Black Lives Matter protests to see how her community from back home was understanding it all. And while she had been nervous to have them, each conversation felt like a small success.
Some family members and friends have even joined some Michigan United events. She’s even more convinced that every conversation’s a chance to move forward. I couldn’t agree more. It feels like we, as a society, often listen not to learn, but to confirm. There is so much in our culture that rewards listening to confirm, to confirm how the person is wrong and bad in exactly the ways we thought they were. And while there may be short term gratification in this stance, I’m pretty sure in terms of creating change, it gets you just about nothing. Here’s one path. And I think it’s a path that much of the country is on right now. You don’t believe what I believe. Therefore, we are not going to be in relationship, goodbye.
Another path could be, I want to understand what you’re up against. I want to understand the struggles you face. And I truly want to understand how you came to see the world the way you do. And I want to be vulnerable to you. I want to share what I’m up against. I want to share how I came to believe what I believe. We don’t have to see eye to eye, but I hope we do keep talking.
This is a much more courageous route. One that we’re trying to walk with the Deep Canvas. One that Caitlin, like so many of us, is trying to walk with our family and friends. And this is the path we need to walk to bring ourselves back to each other and to our communities. And I believe we can do this. As Bridget Antoinette Evans of the Pop Culture Collaborative recently said, “By having the bravery to cross borders, let’s give it a shot and listen to each other along the way.”
If you’re looking for more about all of this, head to peoplesaction.org/podcast, to learn more about Michigan United and the work of the Deep Canvas. We’ll also have stories for more of our canvassers and details on how you can get involved in the work in Michigan and across the country. Thanks again to the New Conversations Initiative, the Race-Class Narrative Project, and David Brockman and Josh Kalla of UC Berkeley and Yale for helping us design the Deep Canvas. And thanks to you for listening.
To See Each Other is produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo and our production manager is Shelby Sandlin. To See Each Other is sound designed by Pedro Rafael Rosato. Original music by The Tang Brothers.
MariaElena is a second-generation immigrant on their father’s German side, living in Detroit. They were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland as a child. They are a radical activist, and self-identifies as Antifa in their personal life. After navigating a difficult relationship with a white supremacist roommate in college, they were “bewildered” by people’s openness in rural areas when they were participating in the deep canvas — which gave them incredible hope.
Eloise is a Liberian immigrant living in Detroit. Now a leader within Michigan United, she has been instrumental in rolling out the deep canvas conversations, despite being apprehensive at first at canvassing in rural areas. She was and is an activist in Liberia and has found that people are very open to meeting their “first” immigrant–her!