Carl Cervone

A Cleaner World, Door by Door

November 13, 1999

I wrote this article in high school. It was originally published in my local newspaper, The Providence Journal, on November 13, 1999.

VERY FEW PEOPLE actually slam the door in my face. In fact, I’ve canvassed for Clean Water Action for more than a year full time in the summers and two evenings a week during the school year and it has only happened to me five times. Once I was chased from a doorstep by a man with a rifle, but other than that nothing very dangerous has ever happened to me on what we canvassers call “turf.”

As a Clean Water Action employee, I’m expected to knock on doors for four hours (from five to nine) and to talk to an average of 40 people a night. Of these, about half should sign my clipboard to show their support, and half of those who sign should also make a contribution and become a member of the organization.

On an average night, though, I talk to about 30 people, about 12 sign, and usually 10 give me money. That’s because I often spend a little too much time at some people’s houses talking to them and playing with their pets. I once spent 45 minutes talking to a single mother with three children, all of whom had asthma. One old man talked to me for half an hour; by the end he started crying as he recalled his memories of playing at the beach when he was a child. I’ve met people in huge houses who say they don’t have a penny, only to be handed $5 by one of their children.

More than 80 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists. But certainly 80 percent of the people I encounter don’t give me money, even though the vast majority of them could probably afford a contribution. The question is how to get through to them and help them see why it is important that they give, especially with all the other solicitations they receive at dinnertime. It’s up to me to cut through their excuses and objections and to make them understand why the environment is the most important resource we have.

No matter how many times we reduce taxes, send spaceships to the moon, or build a new jet, if we don’t have a decent world to live in, we don’t have anything.

People know this; they just need to remember it. It’s my job to remind them. Most people have a million things going through their heads when I come to their door; they are not willing to sit down and have an extended conversation with me. I’ve learned to be short, simple, and straight to the point just the facts, no “um’s” and “uh’s.” I’ve come to realize that half the words I say will have no impact and be forgotten seconds later.

So I choose confident, emphatic, urgent words. “You see why that’s important, don’t you,” I say, or, “We simply can’t wait until people get sick; we must stop this now.” Sometimes I use shocking yet true statistics to win their attention. I tell them that 88 percent of drinking-water violations aren’t reported to the public. There isn’t a single person in this world who is in favor of dirty water or polluted air or high mercury levels I figure.

After I’ve offered my arguments and answered their questions, the money is secondary. I have just completed my main function: to educate the people I meet. Whether they sustain the organization by giving a donation, by volunteering, or by writing letters, I trust I have made a (small) difference in their lives and we have all taken another step toward a clean and healthy world even for the people who slam the door in my face.