6 ways small cultural organizations can generate discussions about voting rights

The time is ripe for small cultural institutions to think about how they can engage their communities in conversations about voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement. For one, we’re in the early stages of the next presidential election cycle here in the United States. We’ve seen several democrats announce that they intend to run for the democratic nomination in advance of the 2020 election and I think it’s safe to say that this presidential race will capture more attention than any other election in modern history. And even if we weren’t approaching a presidential or congressional election, we’re almost always at the beginning, middle, or end of some election. Here in Chicago we’re facing a mayoral and aldermanic election in a few weeks, hot on the heels of the November midterms.

In addition to the near-constant stream of election cycles, we’re now less than a year away from the beginning of the 19th amendment’s centennial. Celebrations of this important historical moment provide a framework cultural institutions can use to highlight issues related to suffrage, disenfranchisement, and human rights, past and present, in their local communities. Voter disenfranchisement has always been a serious human rights issue, and it’s especially pressing now as a number of states with voter identification laws on the books are attempting (and succeeding) in making these laws even more stringent and restrictive.

These moments are important because they present small cultural groups, including local historical societies and museums, with a number of opportunities to bring people together to think critically about the role voting, elections, and disenfranchisement play in their lives and in the lives of those around them. We never need a reason to talk about the connections between past and present– this can happen whenever, regardless of current events– but it’s particularly important that we provide historical context for and facilitate conversations about issues sitting at the top of the news cycle. High on that list right now are what I mention above– voting, elections, and civic disenfranchisement.

Additionally, and perhaps just as importantly, facilitating conversations about problems we’re facing in the present can help small cultural groups demonstrate relevance in their communities, an important and necessary step for the many organizations struggling to stay open in the face of dwindling interest and funding. I’ve written before about how important it is for these groups to play active roles in their towns and neighborhoods (here, here, and here). They need to provide their communities with these kinds of essential services in order to survive in the twenty-first century.

Here are a few things cultural organizations might do to generate conversations about voting, elections, and disenfranchisement for and with the communities they serve:

  • Work with relevant local groups to organize a political debate. This can include anything from hosting the event to providing a moderator for the debate itself. A few weeks ago, in Chicago’s 49th ward, the League of Women Voters of Evanston, the League of Women Voters of Chicago, and a number of small local political groups (including the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Network 49, Protect RP, Rise 49, and the Democratic Party of the 49th Ward) hosted a debate between the two primary aldermanic candidates in advance of the February 2019 election. The League provided a moderator and the debate took place in the auditorium of an area high school. Interest was high–700 people attended, filling every row in the room.
  • Organize a debate-watching party. The Shelby County Historical Society and Museum (SCHSM) in Iowa held such an event before the midterm elections last fall and scheduled it to coincide with the opening of a related exhibit. This kind of event could include time for reflection and discussion after the debate, or organizers might decide to limit discussion, as in SCHSM’s case. Sarah McDonald, the group’s Executive Director, explained how it worked and offered some advice for anyone interested in organizing something similar:
    • The event: “We… called it the Gubernatorial Debate Viewing Party. We timed the exhibit to open with the debate (which was the last debate before the election). To get more people involved, we reached out to the civics teachers in town, and they offered their students extra credit to attend…In an effort to appear unbiased, the debate viewing was the only aspect of the event. We didn’t really open the floor up to comments. Our Board of Directors was supportive of the viewing party, and as far as I know, there wasn’t any pushback. The watch party and the exhibit were tied together because the exhibit talked about different types of elections and debates, and the watch party served as the opening of the exhibit.
    • Behind the scenes: “The watch party was very easy to set up. We just checked the schedule for the remaining debates, picked one that we would be able to stream online, and set up the projector. We also had light snacks available. For others looking to do something similar, I would just recommend making sure you’ll be able to stream the debate, especially if your facility doesn’t have cable.”
    • On doing it again: “I think it would be cool to bring back the voting exhibit before the next election, and have a similar viewing party again. It seemed like a good way to reach out to community members and get people more involved.”
  • Assemble a panel of local experts to provide historical and present-day context for one or more of the area’s hot-button election issues. Be sure to provide attendees with opportunities to engage with the panelists and with each other. An example I return to time after time is the Cambridge Historical Society’s (CHS) three-part fall 2016 “Housing for All” symposium. CHS organized panels of local experts to discuss the varied aspects of housing-related issues in their area. Attendees asked panelists questions and recorded their own thoughts about housing in Cambridge and the Boston metro area during the meetings. The symposium wasn’t related to an election, but it’s clearly a civic issue and others could easily adopt and adjust CHS’ model to meet a variety of needs. Issue-focused panels could be particularly helpful for people concerned about local attempts to strengthen voter ID laws and other measures designed to curtail voting rights.
  • Partner with a national effort to commemorate the passage of the 19th amendment. Ask about hosting, if possible, a traveling exhibition or speaker series or if the national partner has any funding available for born-local projects. Similarly, a number of states have been celebrating state-level women’s suffrage anniversaries over the past few years. See if yours has any state-level funding available for local projects or commissions searching for local partnerships. Check out https://www.2020centennial.org/getinvolved/ for more on how to get involved. Find additional inspiration from the Washington State Historical Society (here) and from the Neenah Historical Society (Wisconsin) and Ticonderoga Historical Society’s (New York State) women’s suffrage exhibits and events (found here and here). Again, as with any project or panel, be sure to build in opportunities for attendees to engage with panelists, speakers, and each other. 
  • Organize a voter registration drive. Visit the American Association of University Women’s helpful voter registration drive guide here for more on how this works. 
  • Assemble a menu of things that local residents can do to support local, state, or federal elections and voting rights. They can volunteer for a group that provide rides to and from polling stations for people without access to reliable transportation, work at a polling site, help a politician they support, organize a voter registration drive (see the AAUW link above), or demonstrate in support of voting rights or other issue they feel strongly about. Share this menu in your newsletter, at your programs, and anywhere else you interact with your members or the communities you serve.

Some may think that small cultural organizations shouldn’t involve themselves at all in issues relating to voting, voting rights, or elections. I disagree. This is exactly what we need to be doing– providing spaces in which interested members of diverse communities can come together to teach each other and learn about the policies that shape our day-to-day lived experience. 

What would you add to this list?