interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
For the last two years, people — mostly young — have been accosting passers-by on the streets of San Diego wearing professionally printed T-shirts with a distinctive logo reading, “Legalize Gay.” They’re part of an organization called Canvass for a Cause, founded in the wake of the defeat for marriage equality in California when Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriages, was passed by voters in November 2008 and a similar initiative, Question 1, was passed in Maine a few months later. Canvass for a Cause was started to get the marriage equality message out to residents not only in San Diego’s so-called “Gayborhoods” of Hillcrest, North Park and University Heights, but throughout the city. It was also designed to finance itself and raise money so its members could not only spread the message of marriage equality but get paid for doing so.
Zenger’s interviewed Nico D’Amico-Barbour, regional director of Canvass for a Cause October 13, which by coincidence was also the date the San Diego police did their first of several attacks on the ongoing Occupy San Diego camp-out in the Civic Center Plaza downtown. The police originally ordered everyone out of the plaza, then relented and allowed them to stay but only as long as they didn’t have tents. My interview with Nico coincided not only with the police attack on Occupy San Diego but also the controversy surrounding the decision by the board of Equality California not to press for repeal of Proposition 8 in the 2012 election, and the sudden departure of its executive director, Roland Palencia, after just five months in the job. In his comments on the Occupy movement and Equality California, Canvass, Nico stressed that he was speaking for himself and not for Canvass for a Cause.
Nico so strongly supports Occupy San Diego that he’s been spending time at the occupation site and originally wanted us to do the interview there, though his duties with Canvass for a Cause made him reschedule for the Canvass headquarters at — ironically — an old Mormon church just south of 10th and Robinson in Hillcrest. While we were doing the interview, we were interrupted by a young man coming to apply for a job with Canvass for a Cause, a long-time staff member who needed Nico’s attention, and a phone call with a person Nico was letting go. They’re certainly a busy group, not only with marriage equality and other Queer issues but also a subsidiary organization called Gay Groups Give Back, which raises money for non-Queer causes like earthquake relief for Haiti. Canvass’s Web site describes the group as “strictly progressive, occasionally Queer.”
What’s interesting about Nico in particular and the members of Canvass for a Cause in general is how much they show a level of dedication and commitment more often associated these days with the Right than the Left. The infectious excitement with which he described Canvass’s growth doesn’t sound all that different from a capitalist entrepreneur waxing eloquent about a particularly successful start-up, and his personal dedication to activism reminded me so much of what I’ve heard from born-again Christians that I decided to headline this article “‘Born-Again’ Activist.” The remarks Nico made as we were finishing the interview — “When you are so exhausted and tired from doing the work that you feel you need to do to help others that you feel that you just can’t physically do it anymore, that’s when it’s time to take a break … Most people cannot honestly say that they’ve been activists” — show a quasi-religious dedication to the causes he cares about that goes far beyond what most of us either would or could maintain.
To join or contact Canvass for a Cause, visit their headquarters at 3705 10th Avenue in Hillcrest, phone (619) 630-7750, e-mail them at email@example.com, contact the Canvass for a Cause page on Facebook, or visit their Web site at www.canvassforacause.org. An audio version of this interview was previously posted for streaming at http://zengersmag.posterous.com/nico-damico-barbour-regional-director-canvass#, or for download at https://rapidshare.com/files/1024242343/01_Nico_D_AmicoBarbour__10_13_11__radio_edit_.mp3
Zenger’s: Let’s start by you telling me a little about yourself, and how you got into activism.
Nico D’Amico-Barbour: My first experience with anything LGBT [Queer] was when I first came back from Italy. My parents were in the Navy, so I spent the second half of my first decade there. I came back to the United States when I was 10, and my parents took me to the Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Diego. It’s probably one of the most liberal churches in the world. In the early 1980’s the Unitarian-Universalist Association put out a mandate saying that all ministers had to marry Gay couples — and that was in the early 1980’s!
So from a very young age, I was playing with little boys and little girls who had two moms or two dads. It wasn’t strange to me. It wasn’t weird. It was just how I grew up. But at the same time, I didn’t really have a great grasp on the difficulties the Gay community faced. That didn’t come about until high school, when I became a little less sheltered and I got to see a bunch of kids from a lot of different lifestyles, and what those different lifestyles and cultures thought about the Gay community. I went to a fairly progressive school, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t exposed to some homophobia.
I got involved in the GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance, as a result, and while there I met a very good friend of mine at the time. Her name was Noelle, and she became like a sister to me. She was very closeted. She had a terrible time coming out. It got to the point where I and a few of her friends would basically force her to go to Hillcrest and hang out with us. And we would just be like — “Oh, there’s a girl over there. Why don’t you tell us three things that you notice about her.” We would say, “Come on. Be honest with yourself, really.” Later she became very open, and because of that I went to a lot of events with her.
I joined the GSA. I did school-wide awareness events such as Day of Silence. People took bets on whether I could do it, whether I could keep my mouth shut all day. Then I got into the Decline to Sign campaign, which was a volunteer effort towards making sure that Proposition 8 wouldn’t even get on the ballot. That was my first experience with actual politics.
However, after high school I drifted away from activism. I didn’t have as much time to do stuff like that. I had to worry about getting a job and paying the bills. I was managing a small coffee shop and I went to a church event. I met a girl there and we were talking, and I was saying, “I’m sort of between jobs right now. I hate my job. It sucks. I’m in a small coffee shop. What do you do?” And she said, “I fight for Gay rights.” I said, “So you volunteer a lot?” She said, “No, no, I get paid to fight for Gay rights.” And I’m like, “Hold the phone. Say what? You can get paid for that?”
I was working at Canvass for a Cause less than a week later. The very first thing I said was, “Sign me up.” As I came to work here, I went out, I did voter outreach, I signed up members and recruited volunteers. More and more, I just needed more. I literally would go up to people here at the office and say, “I need more. I need to do more stuff.” They started giving me more stuff, and within a couple of months I got a promotion. A couple of months after that I got another promotion, and I’m pretty dedicated to working here now. I spent some time in Los Angeles opening up our second office, the L.A. office. I spent three months up there making sure that office was off the ground, in the black, ready to go. Then I came back to San Diego, and now I’m moving into a regional position. I’m overseeing the San Diego and Los Angeles offices.
Zenger’s: Can you tell me a little about Canvass for a Cause: how it started and how it works?
D’Amico-Barbour: That’s a very long story! Canvass for a Cause started as a group of six pissed-off activists in the aftermath of Proposition 8. Nobody in the community was actually doing anything. They were all just “strategizing.” A lot of people, the six pissed-off activists included, said, “Listen. We would literally have more of an effect on the Gay rights movement if we just went up to doors and just talked to people. We could literally just go up and say, ‘Knock-knock, Gay,’ and that would have more of an effect than doing nothing, because at least people would be talking about it.”
They had this idea about going out and fundraising, and using those dollars to run volunteer events where they would get their volunteers and activists to go into non-supportive neighborhoods and persuade voters to come back to the side of equality. It was an amazing idea, but it wasn’t something they had any way to germinate and do an actual campaign. It looked like they weren’t sure if it was going anywhere or not, until they had what they like to call the Bat-symbol in the sky moment, the moment where they said, “We need to go help. That’s what we’re talking about.”
What that was for us was something called Question 1. Question 1 was the same exact thing as Proposition 8, except that it happened in Maine. In 2009 Maine passed a Gay marriage bill through their House and Senate, and it was signed by the Governor. It was set to become effective on January 1, 2010. However, the National Organization for Marriage showed up and qualified a special election for October 2009. So, because Question 1 was a constitutional amendment that would ban Gay marriage pre-emptively, the No on Question 1 campaign put out a national call for help through all these different activists across the country.
The ones here in San Diego, our founding members, went. They didn’t get paid for it. They literally were volunteers for three weeks. The only thing the campaign provided for them was support or housing. They went and, thanks to their volunteer experience and the organizing experience they had, they helped run volunteer events and recruit volunteers for the entire state of Maine. And on their way back, they were thinking, “God, we can’t believe this! We’re going back to nothing. We just spent this amazing, amazing time in Maine doing this organizing work, and we have this strong feeling about what should happen in California. We should do this. We should keep doing this.”
Literally on the plane flight back from Maine to San Diego, they went on the IRS Web site and registered Canvass for a Cause as a nonprofit. So that’s where Canvass for a Cause was born, 5,000 miles above Kansas City, Missouri. But When they got back to San Diego they hit the ground running. As our executive director, Tres Watson, likes to say, we started with $20 and a Discover card, two volunteers and donated moldy space.
The way we operated at first is we would fundraise, go out and recruit volunteers, and then we would put those fundraising dollars and volunteers towards projects with coalition partners, where we would go out into non-supportive areas and persuade voters. We kept growing as an organization and eventually moved out of the donated moldy space. We moved into a nice little executive suite downtown. It was kind of cool, except that it was a tiny, tiny little space, and we kept growing as an organization.
Eventually we got to the point where we really needed another make-or-break moment, and what that was for us was the disaster in Haiti. When you saw these images of thousands dead, thousands more displaced, there was this incredible feeling of, “Man, we need to do something.” What that was for us was a project called Gay Groups Give Back. We became coalition partners with other groups in the community, and in the name of the Gay community we fundraised money to send to Haiti to get survival packs in the hands of families, so they could survive for months while they waited for more permanent help.
We were able to help 12 families that day, and what’s more, we did it in the name of the Gay community, which was something that was really needed. The Gay community at the time was seen as somewhat secular. We want people to help us with our issues but we don’t necessarily want to help everyone else with theirs. So that was something that we were endeavoring to do, and it was an awesome feeling. We did a lot of work, and what it showed us was that we didn’t need to throw our volunteers at these other organizations. We could run our own volunteer events, because we organized that entire event ourselves.
That’s really when the field program was started here at Canvass for a Cause. That’s when we started hiring field directors. That’s when we started doing field work. And from that point on, the rest is history. We just kept growing and growing and growing, adding more to our field programs, taking on more and more events, and now we’re at the point where we not only work on our own campaigns but people will literally come to our field committee meetings and say, “We’ve got this great idea. Can you help?”
One example is we did a prisoners’ rights rally a few weeks ago. It was literally brought to us by a woman whose husband was in prison and on a hunger strike. She literally said, “I’ve never done this before. I’ve never organized a rally before, and I feel I would be lucky to get 200 signatures at this rally.” We helped her out, and we got something like 370. Now she’s personally thanked us for teaching her all of these methods she needed to organize that rally in order to organize around her specific issue.
Zenger’s: How is Canvass for a Cause funded?
D’Amico-Barbour: Canvass for a Cause is a completely grass-roots organization. We’re funded by thousands and thousands of donors every single year who believe in what we do. The largest donation that we’ve ever had out in the field is $508. And yet, despite that, we manage to operate with 50 activists in two cities here in California, operating on no more than $508 contributions at a time. And the reason we are able to do that is when we go out there, people are constantly funding us.
Because we operate at the grass roots, it helps keep us honest. We’re not working for one or two donors who can dictate what we do or don’t do. We’re working for ourselves. We know what we want to do, and if people disagree with us and don’t agree with the work we’re doing, they won’t give us donations anymore. That’s one of the things that’s so special about working in the grass-roots field: it’s completely self-sustainable. But also it keeps movements honest. It ensures that movements are going to live up to their promises, or else their funding is just going to fall out from underneath them.
Zenger’s: Any comment about the decision by Equality California not to seek the repeal of Proposition 8 on the ballot in 2012? Personally, do you think the community should be doing a campaign right now or not?
D’Amico-Barbour: On a personal level, I would say absolutely. One of the sad things about the campaign is that during the original Proposition 8 campaign we had something like 400 volunteers statewide, and yet a few weeks after Proposition 8 passed we had hundreds of thousands of people up and down the state marching in the streets in protest. They had the time to take away from their daily lives to come protest, but they didn’t have the time to volunteer in the first place. That’s what Canvass for a Cause is. We’re out there activating voters. We like to say that Canvass for a Cause is the antidote to apathy. If someone feels strongly about this issue, they shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines. They should go out and figure out what it is that they can do to improve the movement.
Of course I believe that we should be fighting to repeal Proposition 8 next year. But if every single person in the state isn’t behind that — if every single person sitting at home reading this article isn’t going forward, moving forward on this issue and doing everything they can — then we might not be able to get equal rights. We need everyone on board. This isn’t something that five people can win. This is something that takes an army of advocates and activists, all working on human rights issues.
Zenger’s: That’s how the people on the other side got Proposition 8 in the first place. They had the dedication, they were able to mobilize their forces to get it on the ballot, push it through, and change a 15-point deficit in the early polls to a five-percent victory on Election Day.
Zenger’s: So what you’re saying is we need to be at least as organized as they are.
D’Amico-Barbour: At least, if not more. Canvass for a Cause has tons of volunteer events all the time. We have tons of opportunities to get involved, but more so than just Canvass for a Cause, the progressive movement has so much more potential than people give it credit for. People assume that things are going to happen because they vote a certain way. But the fact of the matter is that when you’re an organizer, you’re not just producing your own vote. You’re producing thousands of votes as you go out and talk to people.
So what I would want your readers to do is ask yourselves, “Do I want to be one vote to the election, or do I want to contribute 1,000?” Because you can contribute 1,000 easily. Even if it’s not with Canvass for a Cause, you can find ways to organize. You can go out and, even if you just go door-to-door in your neighborhood, knock on random strangers’ doors and say, “Hey, do you support Gay marriage? Really? Why not?,” at least you’re doing something about it.
Zenger’s: You said that people, especially on the progressive side, think they can achieve social change by electing the right people. One source of frustration to me has been that the Right seems to understand the limits of electoral activism a lot better than the Left does. The Right seems to understand that your electoral activism and your direct action out in the street need to work together, and the Left doesn’t seem to have a clue about that. Leftists seem to think that’s an either/or choice.
D’Amico-Barbour: One of the things that makes me sad is that every day I would go out in the field, I would hear at least one person say, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t worry, it’ll happen.” That sentence is the reason why we don’t have Gay rights in the United States. “Don’t worry, it’ll happen.” NO! It will not “happen.” If you’re saying that “it’ll happen,” that means that you’re not doing what you need to be doing to ensure that it will. If someone cares about his issue, they should get out and do something about it. And the same with every other issue as well. Being an active member of a democracy is more than just about voting. It’s about organizing and speaking your beliefs.
Zenger’s: We’re speaking while the Occupy Wall Street protests are just about a month old, the Occupy San Diego protest is about a week old, and one of my fears about that is that instead of realizing that there has to be an electoral component as well as doing those kinds of actions, we’re going to not be able to translate a lot of that good energy into positive change.
D’Amico-Barbour: I would disagree with that, and the reason I would disagree is because when someone becomes activated on any issue, they start to look at the world in a completely different way. When I first came to Canvass for a Cause, I had done a little bit of work on Decline to Sign, but that was nothing compared to the work I’m doing today. When I first came to Canvass for a Cause, sure, I had political beliefs, and I even talked to people when the moment was right about those political beliefs.
But what doing activism work teaches you is that it isn’t about believing in politics and then doing what you need to get a certain vote through, or to get a certain election to happen, or to pass a certain bill, or to get a certain person in office. It’s about seeing the world in terms of not how it is or how it should be, but how you can improve it and how you can make it better. Sometimes that’s a compromise, and sometimes that’s a complete and total victory.
But as long as you’re looking at the world in that light, and as long as you’re thinking about everything in terms of how it can change, you can make positive growth. I think what Occupy San Diego does is, even if it doesn’t bring that electoral component into it, it is awakening so many people. There are people downtown who are walking through that area and seeing everything that’s going on down there, and asking and figuring out what’s going on. When that person has the lightbulb moment, when the lightbulb finally goes off in their head — even if they’re not doing that electoral work right there, they’re finally activated.
Now you’re going to be seeing that sort of thing everywhere, in everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear. We should always be thinking about the social impacts we’re having. A great example is I refuse to buy new clothes because I know most of them are made by sweatshops in foreign countries. That, in its own way, is a form of activism. And looking at your entire life that way is how you can truly contribute to society.
Zenger’s: One possible outcome I can see from the Occupy movements is that, by stressing how much both major parties are in thrall to the corporate agenda, they might actually make it easier for the Republicans to sweep the 2012 elections. The kinds of people who three years ago were volunteering for Obama are turning up at these things and saying, “Well, he wasn’t the Messiah. Therefore, we shouldn’t bother to vote,” and everyone from our side who doesn’t bother to vote is a vote for the Republicans and the Tea Party to take complete control of the country and move it in the direction they want, which is quite different from what we want.
D’Amico-Barbour: I think that right now, the progressive movement is going through a sort of cocoon phase and a rebirth. Up until now, so much of it has been about some sort of centralized movement. Right now people are finally waking up. People are realizing that it’s not about becoming part of something; it’s about doing things for yourself. And yes, that includes voting, and it includes voting for the right person. But it’s not about being swept into something. It’s about being able to find our own way.
Zenger’s: Why can’t the Left be more like the Tea Party?
D’Amico-Barbour: I don’t think that’s the answer. Becoming like the Tea Party means being swept up in a movement. People in the Tea Party don’t necessarily even understand what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting because they’re angry and they’re involved in this movement. However, they’re not thinking for themselves. I don’t think that the answer for the progressive movement is to become more like the Tea Party. It’s to become the complete opposite of the Tea Party. It’s to individualize and educate every single person, and to activate every single person to become their own organizer.
Zenger’s: That’s an interesting statement, because a lot of the criticism of the Occupy movement in the mainstream media has been that at least when you go to a Tea Party rally, you know what their group stands for. When you go to one of the Occupy events, so the argument goes, you’re stepping into a group of people that don’t have a unified set of demands.
D’Amico-Barbour: The Occupy movement isn’t about a specific set of demands. It’s about educating the public and bringing people outside of their daily lives. If you go down there, there’s no power, there’s no electricity, there’s no showers. We’re lucky there’s a restroom. That means that every aspect of modern society that distracts us from the issues that affect human rights and human suffering here in the United States is removed. You’re not bogged down by everything that usually bogs us down in daily life. All that’s left is a pure sense of community, understanding a progressive forward vision and the need for activism and positive movement.
So many times I’ve met people out in the field who don’t want to talk to me until I say, “No, you’re going to have to talk to me today.” And by the end of that conversation they want to volunteer with us 10 days a week! The reason why that happens is because long before I managed to have a conversation with them, they were thinking about their daughter’s soccer game and their son’s recital, and about the groceries and what they need to do for work, and what the boss said last time, and their mother-in-law is coming for dinner that night, and all these things about their daily life. Until someone has a conversation with them that pulls them away from all that and says, “Stop! Forget all that for a second. These other things are happening.”
Zenger’s: I guess what’s going through my head is the fear that the 2012 election is going to be a major change for this country, and it’s not going to be the change we want. It’s going to be the total takeover of the Republicans and the Tea Party, and they will move this country as far to the Right as Germany was moved by the Nazis in 1933.
D’Amico-Barbour: We don’t know that to be true, and I would actually argue that right now the Occupy movement is making a lot of people wake up. A lot of people in the United States are waking up in a way that they never have before, and if they aren’t now, they will soon, because the Right is going crazy right now. and They’re gathering support, but they’re gathering support from people who are scared. They’re gathering support using fear. They’re not gathering support using education and understanding, and in the end education and understanding is always going to win. It just sometimes takes time.
I personally think the election is not going to be as bad as you think it is. I think the people are going to surprise you. But even if it is, it will always get better. I take pride in that, and it will always get better because there will always be people like me and groups like Canvass for a Cause that will not stop, and will continue to fight no matter what the odds are against them. The beginning of Canvass for a Cause was by no means impressive, but we continued to grow and we continued to fight. We continued to strive until we became what we are today.
And if every single person took as much drive and as much initiative as Canvass for a Cause as an organization has, then we would have every human right and every human dignity that people have been calling for in the United States. It’s just that people sit by and do nothing, and that’s why we don’t have what we have now.
Zenger’s: I know. I put out a newspaper and cover a lot of events, do alternative media, do publicity, get things on the Web, and I ask myself sometimes, “Mark, are you really doing enough? Are you really doing everything you could be?”
D’Amico-Barbour: I think the answer to that question is when you are so exhausted and tired from doing the work that you feel you need to do to help others that you feel that you just can’t physically do it anymore, that’s when it’s time to take a break. That’s when it may be time to spend some time on yourself, and I can understand people that were in activism and spent a lot of time in activism and leave it to do their own things, because there comes a time in your life when you need to take some time for personal care.Most people cannot honestly say that they’ve been activists. They can honestly say that they’ve been contributing members of society, and that in itself is respectable. But every single person has it in them to be an advocate and an activist, both for themselves and for the suppressed minority groups that do not have the means to speak for themselves. When every single person can honestly say, “I have been an activist and I have done good work,” that will be the day when the United States will finally be where it should be. And even then there will be more work to do.