Getting Past Public Speaking Anxiety

We surveyed the block before we turned. To the left, I see upturned sidewalks, cars on blocks, broken swing sets and dilapidated kids toys. To the right, I see mostly fences, which to me means dogs. We turn left. I am canvassing one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods with another woman, Dawn, who is about my age, and a young Latino woman, who represents the organization conducting the canvassing. We are attendees of a conference focused on Latino civic engagement. I was one of 3 white people in attendance, Dawn was also. Today, our final day, we are learning to engage the mostly Latino populated neighborhood by canvassing to collect signatures that will be taken to the Denver Public School (DPS) board.

In this neighborhood, 3 out of every 4 school children through the age of 8 is at one point, during these years, expelled or suspended. In a nearby neighborhood, a higher tax bracket, the same age kids are not expelled or suspended during these years; 0 out of 4. The organization is collecting signatures to take to DPS requesting that kids up to age 8 are not suspended or expelled from school, which will require helping the school system educate teachers along these lines, establishing referral resources, and more. As white women, Dawn and I wondered how the neighborhood would respond to our knocks on the door. Before we went into the field, I asked the organization for a t-shirt and they shared them with all of the canvassers. This worked in our favor as the organization is well-known by the neighborhood for their advocacy efforts.

We approached the first house. The porch was literally falling off. The yard was littered with trash. We surveyed the steps and decided to skip them as they were unstable. Dawn stepped up to knock. A voice from inside bellowed, “just a minute” and the door flung open. An old, very obese white woman was sitting in a chair and opened the door with her cane. “I don’t got no money,” she said. Dawn responded, “We’re not here for money. We are here to ask for your support.”

“Your problem ain’t my problem,” the woman responded and the door closed with a crash. “One down,” Dawn said. We walked back to the sidewalk.

I noticed a man washing his car in the yard just up the street. He did not appear to be a Spanish speaker, and I am not, plus there were plenty of kids’ toys around. I stepped away from Dawn, heart beating out of my chest, and approached the man. “Excuse me,” I said. “Yep.” He didn’t look up. The words flew out of my mouth. “I’m here,….” and I gave him my speech. “OK, I’ll sign it,” he said. “I’ve got 3 kids all younger than 8. If my boy’s not kicked out soon, he will be.”

“What’s happening with your boy at school?” I asked.

“Well, his mama left a few weeks back and I probably haven’t given him much care since. My mama does what she can…but still. He’s acting up. Stealing lunches and snacks. He’s a good boy, though. Not mean. Just mad at his mama.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Yep,” he replied. “Maybe this will help before it gets too bad. Thanks,” he said. I reached out my hand to shake his. He looked me in the eye for the first time and he shook my hand.

We continued like this, Dawn knocking on one door, me on another. If the person at the door was a Spanish speaker, our Latino co-canvasser stepped forward to speak, but, for the most part, she let Dawn and I figure it out. Most everyone we encountered spoke English, at least as a second language. One man spoke Vietnamese. Not any older than me, he had maybe 4 teeth in his mouth. Over the course of our few hours, we collected several signatures, one from a local school teacher.

Upon my return home, I was asked, “How was it?” And I can say with confidence that speaking to a school board, town council, and places like that, is miniscule compared to speaking with disadvantaged people, in their second language, about their little kids getting kicked out of school. I am over my anxiety regarding public engagement.

— Stacey Wright, Programs Manager