Second gentleman Doug Emhoff speaks at a vaccine canvassing kickoff event at Douglass High School on Wednesday. Emhoff’s visit was part of Biden’s “National Month of Action,” encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein for MLK50

In front of a giant blue backdrop, with “WE CAN DO THIS” printed in bold letters over a map of the country, the Second Gentleman of the United States championed the COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s so nice to be out and not wearing masks and be together, sitting together like this. And why is that? Cause you’ve gotten your vaccine,” Douglas Emhoff said to the crowd gathered in the bright sun in the Douglass High School parking lot Wednesday afternoon.

Emhoff was in Memphis to headline a vaccine canvassing kickoff event organized by the Shelby County Voter Alliance, along with Juneteenth In Douglass Park and the national Made To Save initiative, a national grassroots organization that focuses on getting vaccine information to the communities the pandemic hit hardest. The goal was to rally volunteers to go door-to-door in the Douglass neighborhood ahead of two pop-up vaccine events – a method the voter alliance has been using this spring to get the word out about vaccines and increase turnout at clinics.

In normal election years, the ten-month-old SCVA plans to be a get-out-the-vote organization comprising nearly two dozen nonprofits, including churches, labor organizations and the NAACP Memphis Branch. But in an off-cycle year, and one in which vaccine access and information is crucial, the organization has pivoted to door-knocking and distributing flyers about the shots.

On Wednesday, volunteers canvassed ahead of two North Memphis clinics: Thursday’s at the Greater Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Hyde Park and Friday’s at the Juneteenth celebration in Douglass Park. They knocked on doors, asked residents about their vaccination status and plans and answered any vaccine questions, work that makes them proud.

“I think it’s gonna save lives,” said volunteer Rev. Judi Hoffman, pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church.

This year’s Juneteenth Douglass Freedom & Heritage Festival at the park is the 28th annual celebration, said Kathy Yancey-Temple, executive director for The Time is Now Douglass Redevelopment Corporation. A couple of weeks ago, she realized she could use the event to spread vaccine awareness, she said, so she spoke to the Shelby County Health Department about setting up a clinic.

“Juneteenth being such a huge and popular event, I thought: What better time than to get information out and at least make the vaccine accessible to people?” said Yancey-Temple, who plans to get her shot at Friday’s pop up clinic.

This weekend’s vaccination push comes as the country surpasses 600,000 COVID-19 deaths. Experts also warn that it’s increasingly unsafe for unvaccinated people as more transmissible and likely more serious variants take hold.

In Tennessee, 40.5% of the population has had at least one dose, making the state’s rate among the lowest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State data shows Shelby County has vaccinated just under 41% of its residents. 

City and county officials have organized literature drops, giveaways and sweepstakes to increase turnout. In the ZIP code encompassing Douglass, 38108, just over 30% of the population has been vaccinated.

From votes to vaccines

The Rev. Regina Clarke watches as Rev. Judi Hoffman and Cindy Murray talk to a resident of the Douglass neighborhood Wednesday. The volunteers canvassed for the Shelby County Voter Alliance to increase vaccine awareness ahead of two neighborhood pop-ups on Thursday and Friday. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein for MLK50

The SCVA started piloting get-out-the-vote programs in the fall of 2020, said organizer Meggan Kiel. They helped churches and other organizations set goals for the number of members they hoped to register to vote. They then used publicly available voting information to identify potential voters and work to register them, said Kiel, who also works for Memphis Interfaith Coalition For Action and Hope, one of the alliance’s anchor organizations.

Earlier this spring, SCVA was awarded a grant through Civic Nation’s Made to Save initiative. In addition to funding, the grant provided get-out-the-vote type tools – such as a door-knocking script and a tracking app – that allowed them to more easily pivot to vaccine campaigning. 

While canvassing, volunteers use a “research-based script” from Made to Save that helps volunteers talk, especially to hesitant people, “in a way that can open up the conversation rather than close down the conversation,” Kiel said. 

It can be difficult to measure the effect of SCVA’s campaigning, but vaccination numbers at three events held by Su Casa Family Ministries in Nutbush suggest their efforts are paying off. 

Su Casa, which has a preschool program and offers adult English classes, vaccinated 106 people in its first clinic at the end of April. It more than doubled that for its mid-May clinic, vaccinating 243, according to Michael Phillips, the organization’s executive director. The alliance had canvassed nearby ahead of the second clinic, Phillips said, and Su Casa also printed and distributed flyers to get the word out. On Saturday, they vaccinated 178 people, he said. 

While canvassing, volunteers have found that some residents didn’t know the vaccines are free, given to everyone regardless of whether they have an ID, and are available to children 12 and older, she added.

Changing minds a door at a time

On Wednesday afternoon, SCVA volunteers, local leaders and others listened as Emhoff asked them to go out and spread the word about the vaccines. He led the crowd in a chant of, “Safe! Effective! Free! Available!”

And while Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband might seem a little out of left field as a vaccine ambassador in Memphis, Kiel said Wednesday’s volunteer turnout was bolstered by the second gentleman’s speech. Normally they might have five to ten volunteers knocking on doors, Kiel said. Wednesday, they had more than 25. Shelby County voters overwhelmingly voted for Biden in the 2020 election, who ran with Harris.

Emhoff’s visit was part of Biden’s “National Month of Action,” encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. 

After the second gentleman left, volunteers had a brief training on canvassing. Then, in small groups in the late afternoon Memphis heat, they left to knock on doors.

Over the course of an hour, the Rev. Regina Clarke, Eric Townsend, Cindy Murray and Hoffman spoke to a dozen or so residents and left literature at the doors of around a half dozen more. 

Early in the door-knocking, the group encountered Larry Gilliam, who’d gotten his first Pfizer shot but hadn’t yet gotten his second. 

He mentioned that he was told to go to the Pipkin Building in Midtown for the second dose.  Clarke told him that if it was easier for him, he could get his second shot Thursday at the church or Friday at the park. 

“OK, that’s even better,” he said. He took three flyers to share with some friends.

“I know a couple guys,” he said, adding while laughing that they might not listen to him. 

Not all residents were as open as Gilliam. The volunteers also encountered resistance, like the mother who said she’s put her faith in God to keep her safe, and her adult son, who said he didn’t trust the safety of the vaccines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says all three vaccines are safe and effective; a very small number of people died from rare blood clots after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

But other residents were willing to take the information. One woman Clarke approached said she wanted to get vaccinated but didn’t have enough information. She was hard of hearing, so Clarke used American Sign Language to communicate vaccination details to her.

“She said she’s going to get it this weekend over here at the community center,” Clarke said.  “I’m excited because people have actually been receptive to it.” 

Then the volunteers headed to the next door.

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