By Steve Zwick

“It’s a yin-yang thing,” Craig Scheunemann says softly. “The citizenry is largely complacent, and my job is to visit 120 people each night and spend time with the hippest dozen. That’s the essence of canvassing–expand the time you invest in supporters and contract the time you waste on nonsupporters. I’m not Jesus. I’m not going to convert anyone. I just try to roll with the karma that comes my way, then I can channel it into people who can spread it to their neighbors.”

Scheunemann rings several doorbells in a small apartment building in Uptown. Finally a guy named Ian buzzes us in. Scheunemann smiles and explains that he’s canvassing for Citizens for a Better Environment. He hands Ian his clipboard. “The magic of breaking the barrier,” he explains later.

As Scheunemann talks, Ian flips through the articles, fact sheets, and forms people can sign saying they support what CBE’s doing. After four or five minutes Scheunemann walks away with a signature but no donation. “It’s good to start with a friendly guy, even if he doesn’t donate,” he says. “Helps prevent turf head.” That’s canvassers’ slang for bad attitude.

Scheunemann is a blues guitarist who plays under the name Craig Davis at bars such as Rosa’s on Armitage and Lilly’s on Lincoln. For 20 years he’s been supplementing his income by canvassing for CBE in Milwaukee and Chicago–knocking on doors and telling people disturbing facts about the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat, trying to get them to recycle, read labels, and contribute a few dollars.

Five evenings a week CBE–which started financing itself through door-to-door canvassing in 1971, one of the first grassroots organizations to do so–sends a van of canvassers out to some neighborhood in Chicago or the suburbs. Ten years ago the group sent out five or six vans during the week and a few on weekends. The Chicago office of Greenpeace sent out six or seven vans daily, and other organizations sent out vans too. “Things were getting out of hand,” Scheunemann says. “There were some shysters out there too. Folks didn’t know who to trust.”

Now most of the shysters are gone, and so are most of the legitimate canvassers. Greenpeace stopped going door-to-door in 1997, and tonight CBE has only six workers. Scheunemann says he’s sometimes the only one out here.

At 2:30 that late November afternoon the canvassers had begun trickling into CBE’s local office, at 407 S. Dearborn, to hear a briefing by Stefan Noe, the group’s Illinois director. A lawyer with the group since 1993, Noe says, “We don’t see canvassing as just a fund-raising tool. We see it as a chance to educate people, to discuss with them issues they don’t read about every day, like the dangers of pesticide use in schools.”

Since it’s Wednesday, the canvassers are briefed on new developments relevant to the neighborhoods where they’re working that week. Noe asks them to try to get people worked up about the city’s blue-bag recycling program, which a CBE fact sheet says brings in only 20 percent as much as suburban curbside programs. He admits that the concentration of apartment buildings in cities makes curbside recycling difficult, but he points out that programs have worked in Beverly and other neighborhoods. “Ask people to write letters, because it really does make a difference,” he says. “The city thinks people are too apathetic to sort their own bottles and cans.”

Noe also explains some legislation CBE is helping draft on voluntary cleanup standards for land where schools are built, and he describes the state’s toxic-emissions-trading program, which lets companies buy and sell pollution allowances. Free-market enthusiasts love the idea, and Noe hopes it’ll work, though he’s worried that lower overall emissions could allow toxic hot spots to remain. That leads to a discussion of risk-management planning, which mandates that companies analyze potential hazards at their facilities and report them to the EPA so that local governments can prepare for possible disasters. These are all old issues, but each has a new twist.

When Noe finishes, Scheunemann raises his hand. “How do we say all this in ten words or less?”

During the 20-minute drive to Uptown the canvassers practice their pitches and pass around a box of Tic Tacs. Scheunemann and I are dropped off on his “turf,” a three-block strip of Winona east of Clark. His map of his territory is a “turf sheet,” and at the end of the day he’ll meet the crew chief outside the van for a “turf talk.”

For a $30 donation, people receive quarterly newsletters and E-mail updates on local issues and what CBE’s doing about them–and a phone call later in the year asking if they want to renew. “If you look at the canvass in terms of what we spend on it and how much money it generates directly, then there are certainly more effective ways of raising money,” says Mike Mitchell, who was Greenpeace’s assistant canvass director before taking over CBE’s program two years ago. “But the canvass builds our member base, and these are people who tend to donate in the future as well. When you couple the door-to-door canvass with the telephone canvass, it turns out to be worthwhile.” In 1998 phone and door-to-door canvasses in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota–the three states where CBE has offices–brought in almost $1.2 million, along with 2,267 new members. The group now has 30,000 members in its database.

It isn’t easy finding people who want to go door-to-door. “We’re not getting the college kids streaming in like we used to,” says Mitchell. “The people we do have are dedicated and extremely good, but there just aren’t that many of them.” Only three of the half dozen or so current canvassers have more than a year’s experience. Mitchell says using volunteers isn’t a solution. “It takes too much out of people, and there’s no quality control. Also we like the idea of having paid activists.” But the pay isn’t competitive, especially in the current economy. Veterans are paid $65 a day plus a bonus based on how much they bring in; trainees are paid $40.

I know why it’s hard for CBE to keep canvassers. Ten years ago I spent six months as one, and I got turf head a lot. It wasn’t because of the money or because of the skeptics who came to the door or even the ideologically opposed–they kept your mind nimble. It was because of the apathy out there. You get a few too many slammed doors and the martyr syndrome kicks in. You start muttering, I gave up a cushy job for this? I’m trying to save the planet, for cryin’ out loud! I knew Scheunemann back then, and people with his attitude are rare. “There is good turf and bad turf,” he concedes. “But you can’t think about it when you’re out there. You’ve got to believe it’s all good turf or it will never happen. You can’t see yourself as riding some high horse.”

On average, half of what the canvassers raise each day goes for their salaries. The remainder pays for much of CBE’s research and litigation costs, as well as basic expenses such as telephones and rent. What’s left goes into a reserve fund. Money’s always tight.

Stefan Noe is looking for other sources of money. CBE researches solutions to environmental problems, then presents them to polluters, arguing that voluntarily cutting pollution generates goodwill and saves on liability costs. Noe has toyed with the idea of charging a consulting fee for the research, but he doesn’t think it would work. “It’s hard enough getting them to just listen in the first place,” he says.

He’s also tried to increase funding from foundation and government grants, which now supply a third of CBE’s budget. But those grants are awarded only for projects with a clear goal, a specific time frame, and a detailed budget, and a lot of CBE’s work doesn’t fit those criteria. “Foundations don’t like to fund litigation, for example,” he explains. “And a lot of what we do is litigation.”

Litigation sometimes pays for itself, because violators who lose a case often have to pay most of the environmentalists’ legal fees. CBE wins almost all of its cases–18 settlements against polluters in just the last three years–and Noe says the few it hasn’t were lost because of technicalities or jurisdictional issues. “It’s never been about whether someone was in violation of the law or not.”

Ten years ago CBE wasn’t nearly as involved in litigation as it is today. Back then, I was attracted by the group’s dedication to grassroots organizing, specifically the way it had used canvassers to stir up citizens against an incinerator in my neighborhood. I liked the concept of getting locals involved rather than coming in as outside do-gooders. I also liked the idea of trying to sell environmental responsibility to polluters through persuasion rather than by drawing battle lines. But the pressure to go to court has grown a lot over the last decade.

In my canvassing days, George Bush was president and the EPA and Department of Justice fined and prosecuted polluters quite often. But two years into Bill Clinton’s watch, both agencies started caving in to pressure from Republicans like Tom DeLay, who portrayed the EPA as the “gestapo of government.” They shifted away from “deterrence oriented” enforcement of environmental laws and toward a policy of “compliance assistance,” the kind of gentle nudging CBE was good at. State EPAs across the country also went soft, telling polluters how to comply with the law but going to great lengths to avoid offending them. They and the U.S. EPA and the Department of Justice increasingly began to rely on citizens’ groups and their attorneys to provide deterrence-oriented enforcement. Basically, the government and citizens’ groups switched roles.

The hazard is that citizens’ groups can be easier to outmaneuver. CBE recently failed to win a judgment against a Chicago business called the Steel Company, which had gone seven years without reporting its toxic inventories and emissions to the EPA, in violation of community right-to-know laws. “This is a southeast-side neighborhood inundated with pollution, and these reports are all we have to assess the risks to the community,” Noe says. “People have a right to know if they’re being exposed to harmful chemicals. It does them no good to find out seven years later that those exposures have occurred.” CBE had discovered the violation, gone public with it, and notified the Steel Company that it was going to sue. The company coughed up the reports, but CBE sued anyway to recover the money it had spent on its investigations. It also sued to get the company to pay an EPA fine for the seven years it hadn’t complied with regulations and to get it to submit to inspections in the future. The CBE lawyers won in appellate court, but the decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1998 ruled in a split decision that collecting a fine for past violations that would be paid into the U.S. Treasury was the job of the government, not of a citizens’ group. The ruling also meant that CBE couldn’t recover its legal fees.

Now the Steel Company is suing CBE for more than $250,000 in legal fees. “They’re claiming they prevailed in court and therefore they’re entitled to reimbursement of legal fees,” Noe says. “It’s dangerous, because they’re not disputing that they were in violation, and they can’t seriously attack our action as frivolous, given that the Department of Justice, the federal EPA, and 15 state attorneys general supported our position. They’re just saying the loser in these cases should pay, regardless of whether the suit was frivolous or justified.” And because there are more conservative judges than there were a decade ago, CBE is more likely to face a judge who favors a strict loser-pays philosophy. “If they [the Steel Company’s lawyers] do win, then every legitimate action a citizens’ group takes will carry huge risks,” Noe says. “If that happens, we’re sunk.”

Scheunemann greets every potential member with a smile but politely bolts if they don’t show interest after ten seconds of his rap. “Most people are polite,” he says, “but if you see apathy in their eyes, just move on. Leave them in their blissful complacency. Oops–turf head.”

A few doors later a woman who knows the issues grills him on a few points, says she likes what the group’s doing, and signs up to be a member. Scheunemann loads her down with fact sheets, violating a basic rule of sales. “Hey, she’s hip,” he says later. “It’s not about getting the money and then running to the next one. This isn’t a sales job–it’s a karma exchange.” He insists she’ll read every scrap of the fact sheets he gave her and says getting a donation isn’t a goal–it tells him she’s serious. “That’s the difference between canvassing and sending out junk mail: qualification.”

Back on turf, Scheunemann gets stingy with fact sheets. “If they don’t donate even a couple dollars, how can you expect them to read the material?” he says. “You’re just contributing to the waste stream if you give it to them.” He concedes that some people who don’t donate might be conscientious enough to write letters or take their recyclables to a drop-off point, but he says that’s rare–and besides, printing costs add up.

Another woman invites us into her home and asks what she can do about the blue-bag program. “You put everything in one bag, and they say it gets recycled,” she says. “I don’t believe it.” Scheunemann tells her about other cities that have tried blue-bag recycling only to abandon it, then gives her a fact sheet. Outside I point out that for $5 more she could have become a member, so he should have upgraded her. “I’ve never been good at that,” he says. “I get someone that hip, and I just want to keep the karma going.”

I leave Scheunemann and go looking for Dayna Lobraico, a medical student who started canvassing in September. She’s 0 for 20 so far and hasn’t raised a dime. I remember days like that.

After a couple more not-interesteds, a guy comes to the door thinking we’re a long-overdue pizza. He listens and starts writing out a check for $20. Lobraico expertly points out that he can become a member for $10 more, and he goes for it.

Several doors later a woman says, “I’m sorry, honey, but isn’t this what we pay taxes for?” More people listen patiently, nod, and plead poverty. One woman says she loves blue-bag recycling. Lobraico impatiently rattles off her arguments against the program, but the woman sees things differently. Lobraico seems to doubt her own knowledge or the woman’s integrity. After we leave I say I thought the woman wanted a fact sheet. “I used to pass those out all the time,” Lobraico says, “but I think she was just going to throw it away. Maybe I’m wrong.”

She seems to be losing her patience, and I ask if my presence is cramping her style. “Nope,” she says. “Gives me a good excuse–I never do well when people come with me.”

A few more people pretend to care about what she says. Some ask for and receive fact sheets, some even promise to write letters. But no more money comes in. By the end of the night she’s lecturing. She ends up with only that one donation.

Zane Byrdy, who’s been canvassing for nine months, pulls up in the CBE van. He announces that a new canvasser wasn’t at her pickup spot. We circle back, but she’s still not there. He starts driving around her turf. “Sometimes they lose track of time,” he says. “Or they want to get that one last member.” He says she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would give up. Apparently trainees often hop on the el if they don’t like the job. After driving around for ten minutes, Byrdy is clearly shaken. “We’ve got to get to a phone.”

The woman has turned up at the CBE office. Someone else from CBE had canvassed her turf a few days earlier, so she left. That means she didn’t cover her cost. Neither did the guy who got only $7, though he claims to have spread a lot of karma. Andrew Jenkins, a 37-year-old with a social-work degree, hit the jackpot with more than $300. Byrdy and Scheunemann both broke $200. Altogether, tonight’s canvass brought in about $750, of which roughly $550 will go to cover salaries and bonuses. They signed up about a dozen new members, and two dozen more people signed the support statement.

Ten years ago I didn’t last long as a canvasser, though I considered myself a pretty good one. I spread my share of karma and covered my own cost. But the job was never more than a stopping-off point, a sort of penance on the front lines of environmentalism and a chance to see the world from a perspective most people never get. For a moment tonight I toy with the idea of signing up again, maybe going out just one day each week. Then I remember that Scheunemann now limps–he didn’t ten years ago. He assures me it isn’t painful. Some kind of muscle-atrophy thing, he says, though he admits it’s from canvassing. No, I’ll just pay my $30 and leave it at that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.