Campaigning for change
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“I will never forget that day”
“I was fresh off the plane and this woman, Aletheia, wearing a big Obama button walked up to me,” recalls Thesing. “She said, ‘Erin? Ready to knock on some doors and register voters?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”
Thesing and Aletheia Henry are both white. They drove to the north side of Flint, a poor part of town, to a church parking lot to meet up with some volunteers, two middle-aged women, both black. Henry’s plan was to register voters in a nearby apartment building. Both women refused. “They said, ‘Oh no, we’re not going there,’” recalls Thesing. “And Aletheia said, ‘Yes, we’re going there.’”
The women’s fears were well founded. The area was dangerous. A sign on the front of the building said, “First three months of rent are free as long as you put $100 down.” Nonetheless, they all went.
“The woman I was partnered with called her daughter around ten times: she told her, ‘You can’t believe where these white girls will go,’” says Thesing. “We’d knock and a mother would open the door with all her little children around her and we would register her to vote. We registered about 30 people that day. I loved how the phone conversation changed. The last time my partner called her daughter, she said, ‘I am so excited. I am so full of energy. This is the greatest thing. You’re coming with us next time.’”
“Hooked on Flint”
The Obama campaign chose to spend the summer in Michigan developing a base of engaged community volunteers over implementing traditional campaign field strategies. Once established, their hope was that this engaged community would carry the campaign forward.
For the month of June, Thesing and Aletheia Henry, an eight-state veteran of the primaries, worked out of a little office with two card tables and laptops. They scoured newspapers for events where they could recruit volunteers and register voters. Michigan’s registration deadline for the general election was October 6. They went to farm and Juneteenth parades and baseball games. They stood outside the dollar store, liquor stores, pool halls, and the cash advance store. On Saturdays, they did the rounds of barbershops, beauty salons, and nail shops. On Sundays, they went to churches and made announcements, and they enlisted the help of volunteers to recruit at mosques and synagogues.
By July, Thesing’s parents wanted her to come home, go back to school so she could finish her degree on time, and “calm down.”
Meanwhile, offers to work for the campaign poured in from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Michigan asking Thesing to work for them. But by now, as Thesing put it: “even though at face value my story is not relatable to those from Flint,” she had learned how to tell her story and connect effectively with many potential volunteers. She had gained their trust, and she was beginning to understand this devastated community.
When Thesing secured a political science internship, it allowed her to meet both her parents’ and the University’s requirements. She chose to stay in Flint.
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