My mother told me not to talk to strangers. I haven’t always followed that advice, but it’s still an ingrained cultural norm. What I mean by that is that it’s strange and awkward to approach a stranger and engage them in conversation. To ask that stranger you’ve just met to sign their John Hancock on a piece of paper they know very little about can seem like a stretch. It requires you to quickly gain their trust and approval.
That’s what petitioning is. It’s the act of appealing to an unknown individual on the streets of a bustling town in an attempt to get them to endorse a cause they may or may not already know anything about. Which, for me, is an intimidating prospect.
I was sure the art of petitioning would be one of the skills taught to me during the semester. I was correct in this assumption -- and terrified by it. In our classroom setting, we learned how to petition and the importance of this personal interaction when talking to people about an important issue; we practiced by role playing. One of the tips that I valued the most was to smile and have a good time.
Too soon our role playing time was up. It was the hour to hit the streets. So we suited up in Greenpeace gear and headed outside of the headquarters in Washington, DC. My comrades set their goals high and high-fived. I chose to set a comfortable goal of just talking to one person. I’d been spending all day cultivating a positive personal attitude towards the prospect of speaking to strangers. I felt like I was maybe going to be just fine petitioning. My “turf” ended up being in front of the District of Columbia Public Library. The foot traffic was slow, but steady.
Within moments of being in the spot one of my Greenpeace Semester coordinators casually suggested an interested pedestrian sign my clipboard. Goal accomplished. I now had time to revise my goal, and settled on ten signatures
. The day progressed and I steadily collected signatures.
To those that shook their head no, I genuinely wished them a great day and smiled. On one occasion a man did an about face at the sound of my well wishing and returned to sign my clipboard. It was a heart-warming experience. As our hour of street petitioning drew to a close my end result was thirteen signatures. I was very content to have smashed both of my goals. Talking to strangers isn’t a scary thing to me anymore, as long as I have the right attitude.
Jessica Loko Seaman is a student activist currently in the Greenpeace Semester.