I was wandering up and down North 6th street, feeling foolish that the whole train ride here I had been envisioning a block party. That morning I rode the Blue Line, staring at the glass and my reflection as we went through tunnels, imagining what I would see or hear after I surfaced on 8th street, and made the short walk to the event. Music blasting into the air, color-themed balloons like the ones that lifted that house from “Up”, an entire street cleared of cars– because I was going to The Jawn. Of course, there was none of that; outside it was the noise of a Saturday in the city. Not of crowded sidewalks and bus exhaust– more like laughter in Franklin Square Park on the first day of fall.
All this to mean: one, don’t daydream on the train, and two, I was having some difficulty finding the main entrance. I’m actually glad I never did. I cut through the back parking lot of WHYY TV’s Studios where caterers and event workers came through, and a security guard let me pass after I told him I was a volunteer. I opened a door, passed a curtain, and walked right into a room buzzing. A band of high school musicians rehearsed their set; caterers organized tables for food; photographers created a backdrop for a photo station. The room was lit so it had a purple hue, and screens on the walls, as well as the huge screen behind the podium from which the event would be hosted , read “Vote That Jawn” in a logo designed by the graffiti artist Distort. This was the Jawn I hadn’t thought about; this room was, as artist-activist Lansie Sylvia from “Next Stop: Democracy” would later say, a perfect example of a city of people giving their best.
Education advocate Tamara Anderson gave a mobilizing speech urging for the multiplicity of people voting, encouraging the audience to bring a friend, then a friend, then another friend when getting registered. Wes Matthews read one of his poems, which happened to be his first performance as newly named Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate. Lansie Sylvia reminded young people that being unsatisfied with the candidates doesn’t justify sitting it out on election day. Equipped with a presentation on the screen, she pointed to the box you can check for “no vote”. That’ll register your feelings. Philly hip hop artists Ma’tthue Raheem and MG performed their creation of a Vote That Jawn song, rapping to the crowd, “just unify, no way that they can ignore you.” I saw so many people connected in complex and important ways: to make an event, and democracy itself.
I felt a particular jump of pride and excitement an hour into the event, after some folks had given speeches, though before the teams of young people broke up into groups to formulate voting registration strategies. The artists who designed the poster for the program, an essentially-Philly piece of the words “Vote That Jawn” in front of a sketch of City Hall, came to the podium to introduce themselves. José, a young man who likely was not looking forward to speaking that day, cautiously approached the mic. I couldn’t hear much, but felt my ears perk up when he said “I’m a junior at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush.” I found him after he left the stage.
“You’re from Ben Rush? So am I! I graduated last year!” I said to him. “It is so awesome that you are involved with this.”
“Thanks! Yeah, I’m here with Fresh Artists,” he said, pointing to Fresh Artists founder Barbara Allen. When I spoke with Allen later, she would tell me what a talented artist José was. (His work on the VTJ poster is one example of a skilled portfolio; as part of Fresh Artists, he has donated 20 pieces of artwork. One illustration of abundant vegetables on a dinner table uses rich acrylics of bright red, green and orange.) I made sure to compliment his work on the poster, and said to him again, but this time to myself as well, “it’s so great that you’re here.” Part of my surprise and joy at finding someone from my high school at the event was knowing Rush’s excellence in fostering arts education. José was currently a part of that community, and he was contributing his education, along with his talent, at The Jawn. This moment is what confirmed it for me– that this is decidedly a city worth living in. Should I ever doubt that, I only need to look to the people that night giving their best to make it so.
Erinda Sheno is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. She is American-Albanian, and a native Philadelphian. Go Birds.