Midwestern Youth of Color Are Using Art and Culture to Build Their Political Power

"In order to get connected to folks who are from communities where trust is not there, you have to reach people where they’re at.”

(Screenshot via Midwest Culture Lab)

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Millennials and Gen-Zers make up nearly 20 percent of the electorate; if only Millennials voted, the 2016 election would have looked a lot different. But young people vote at lower rates than older voters, and voters of color even lower still. In 2018, just three out of 10 eligible GenZ voters turned out—and the GenZ electorate is more diverse than previous generations, standing at 22% Hispanic, 14% Black, 5% Asian, and 5% other or multiracial.

The Midwest Culture Lab thinks it’s figured out how to convince those young people — especially young people of color — to turn out in higher numbers, and unsurprisingly, it comes down to messaging.

“Speaking from my experience as a member of the Black community,” says Nailah Johnson, cultural organizer with Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) in Milwaukee, one of the three Midwestern partner organizations that make up the Culture Lab, “there’s just so little trust for… folks in politics, especially policing, the criminal justice system and the courtroom,” they say. “But they’re all directly affected by politics, so I think in order to get connected to folks who are from communities where trust is not there, you have to reach people where they’re at.”

That means avoiding messages that simply tell people to “go vote.” The Midwest Culture Lab has tested new forms of messaging that meet youth of color where they are. That means working with a diverse group of artists and coming up with messages that are more interesting and meaningful, such as “We All We Got” and “OUT VOTE,” positioning voting as an act of self-reliance and reframing it as an opportunity to vote out politicians who don’t care about the issues impacting communities of color.

It also meant working with local figures with deep followings in the communities of color Midwest Culture Lab’s trying to reach, rather than aiming for a famous celebrity with broader appeal. This means working with DJs, painters, poets, and more as well as aspiring artists to help them see the opportunity for activism in their work as well as partnering with them to hold a variety of events — these days, digital — to reach the artists’ dedicated followings and normalize civic participation.

Taking a local approach is central to cultural organizing, so the work of the Midwest Culture Lab looks different in different places.

Chicago Votes, another of the Culture Lab’s partners, has created the Give a Sh*t Collective. Composed of creatives of color, from fashion designers to musicians and videographers, the collective works together with Chicago Votes on projects related to voting, like the Give a Sh*t happy hour series and more. This approach “gives everyone entry points into the civil process, no matter what your interests are,” says Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes. The group measures success based on the number of artists they’re able to engage beyond their first event, like joining the Give a Sh*t collective after attending a happy hour.

When Ohio was voting on Issue 1, a ballot measure to reduce the number of people in prisons for low level drug crimes, the Ohio Student Association, the last of Culture Lab’s partner organizations, funneled $73,000 towards artist grants to create work related to it. The organization and artists created an ad centered around reimagining the world that, according to Prentiss Haney, executive director of the student association, led to more than 150 people signing up to volunteer with the organization. Further, OSA’s efforts contributed to an increase in youth voter turnout in Ohio which doubled from 11.4% in 2014 to 22% in 2018.

At LIT, Johnson’s activities have “led to the most follows by verified accounts on Instagram since LIT began,” they say. Their efforts have also generated the most shares for video content — like this Instagram video on voting — since the organization’s inception as well. In total, LIT’s content has been viewed over 2.3 million times since its cultural organizing efforts began.

While more people can be reached per dollar through channels like Facebook ads, cultural organizing is about creating deeper, more meaningful connections. For OSA, training the roughly 25 artists commissioned for the Issue 1 campaign to be community activists led to OSA collecting the second highest number of petition signatures in the state’s history in 2018 to get the issue on the ballot.

Issue 1 ultimately failed, but in the process Haney and company found success in the fact that a team of young organizers of color in Ohio gained skills and experience running a culture-based digital campaign that the group plans to bring into its future work.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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