June 24, 2011

How to Overcome Fear: Canvassing for Energy Efficiency in Highland Park

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Written by GELT Participant – Dan Tompkins

It was an afternoon in summer. Me, this guy James, and a girl named Marion walked down the middle of the road. We were in a rough area. It’s called Highland Park.

The three of us were working with GELT, a community organization that wanted to get some energy efficiency to houses that needed it most. It was a local nonprofit that believed in a green economy. The headquarters was just down the street.

James was tough. He seemed to approach the situation like he had seen the worst of human nature and come back from it unscathed. He moved like a man who had transcended arrogance and conceit and replaced those lesser emotions with pure independence. He talked in clipped, information filled, sentences. One of the first things he said was something like, “If I could get away with it, I would threaten the life of every single person who ever knocked on my door. I would make it so everyone interrupting me during my favorite show would fear death.” He then alluded to intimate knowledge of the abandoned buildings around us.

I laughed and repeated the last thing he said. I’d only met him that morning and was still trying to get a read of his sense of humor. When in doubt, I look for the humor. Maybe he sensed my tension, because from there on out he kept insisting that “people are just people” and regardless of where they have a house, they are just as angry, just as sad, and just as friendly as the rest of us. He was talking about the people ahead of us. They gathered in driveways around barbeques and in loose circles close to their porches. A lot of them wore do-rags that I had come to associate with rap culture, ghetto culture, and crime. It seemed like there were kids everywhere.

As I looked at the men, women, and children, I thought of Detroit and its reputation for violence. People at GELT had heard gunshots almost every night at three and four in the morning. They claim to only really get worried when they hear shots from another gun following the first.

Our mission was to talk with these people about cutting energy bills. We offered a free service that involved going into their house to replace some light bulbs, insulate some pipes, and hopefully cut their bills by three or four hundred dollars a year. It was all part of a greater mission to make a green, truly sustainable, economy.

I walked over a stream of water on the sidewalk. It was bubbling up through a crack in the concrete. There were subtle marks of erosion, which was a sign that a pipe had broken underground and the local utility company had decided to ignore the problem, instead of rip through the layers of excavation work. Apparently the utility company had a reputation for willfully ignoring such problems in Highland Park. The city owed the company around six million dollars and it costs a lot to replace water lines. Suffices to say, the locals didn’t think much of anyone associated with utilities.

Approaching the first door, I tried hard to remember some of the things we had gone over in class back at GELT. I was supposed to get the person talking, make good eye contact, keep it simple, and let them know I came from just down the street.

The woman who came to the door had a stiff lower lip. Her arms were crossed and when she opened her mouth to breath, I felt terrified of her two missing teeth. Narrow eyes suggested suspicion. They told me that no con of mine could outsmart their intuition.

I felt like I owed her something. That I should apologize for some slight I had unknowingly incurred. I wanted to give her what she wanted. I wanted to slip away.

But then it struck me. That was the big moment.

I reminded myself that I was there to do one of the only truly noble things I’ve ever done. So many times in my life some sort of guilt clings to my actions. Do write the paper or play videogames? Do I drink one more, or try to save some money? For me, every occupation comes with a web of doublethink and legitimization of ulterior motives. I tell customers that the whitefish is “amazing” even though I know everyone should stick with burger and fries. I rationalize. I say, “it’s a job.” Even when reaching for ice cream I’m filled with small, nagging questions. I ignore the guilt almost every time because lets be honest; life without ice cream isn’t life at all, but nothing seems to come without a small price of inner guilt. This situation was different though. I didn’t need any money, any work, or even any appreciation. From this woman, I desired only a small chance to help make her life a little better.

In my moment of hesitation, the woman surveyed my companions. Marion, beautiful, sweet, Marion, came to my rescue. She hit all the key points, and in a moment James and I jumped in to back her up.

The woman’s expression softened. Her daughter came out from the shadows of the house. She was ten years old, her name was Stephanie, and she was almost in fifth grade. Stephanie had just trained her dog to lay down. She, “would really like to learn my name.”

The woman called her husband—a man who seemed all smiles and good intentions—and she sat on the porch. She told us that all her neighbors could use the service and that it sounded like a real good thing. She cracked jokes. She smiled.

She made me remember that when you do a truly good deed, people will appreciate you. Causes and purpose aside, if nothing else, it’s hard to hold contempt for a person with dedication.

It’s a weird feeling to do something I so completely believe in. No matter what angle I approach it, I know that there is something inherently good, or noble, or pure about sustainability. Not everyone may agree on global warming, but I doubt a person on the planet really believes that sustainability creates destruction. Also, because I lived in Detroit, I’m familiar—if removed—with many of the struggles some of these people face. Almost all of them need and deserve a cut in their utility bills.

By the end, we invited the family to a GELT planned event that involved building a hoop house followed by a barbeque. The woman pointed us away from the houses that were vacant and the ones where no one was home. She waved goodbye.

To get to the next house we had to use the sidewalks. Some of the empty lots remind me of the nature preserves back in my hometown. The unmanaged grass gets so tall that I imagined moving slowly into the fold and letting the barrier embrace me. The three of us clung to the winding path of broken concrete.

As we worked down the rest of the street, a lot of people either ignored us, or shouted from behind closed curtains. In a perfect world, all of them would take the service, and embrace its motivations, however, I feel it’s pointless to dwell on missed opportunities. It takes no amount of doublethink to do such a purely honest deed and for that fact alone I’m happy to do it, over and over. Door to door, no fraud looms in the back of my mind. Economics, intelligence, and politics aside, people pick up on that.

I started to realize that James was right; they are just people. Some put up an intimidating front, but maybe I would too if I ever worried about someone like Stephanie. I’m not about to stop locking my car or wander the streets after midnight, but people are just people and there’s no reason to be afraid of that.

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