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Out of the Mouth of Babes

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

VoteThatJawn and Fresh Artists tap an army of kiddos to turn out the parent vote

By Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

This article was originally published by The Philadelphia Citizen. You can view the original story here.

A contribution from Thomas Holme Elementary School in Philadelphia.

These works aren’t fine art. They’re logos, for heaven’s sake, meant to sell a product. Slick, they’re not.

Some are scratched out on torn scraps of grocery bags, some drawn on lined notebook paper, some on the backs of used envelopes. Many are in pencil, lucky if it’s even colored. But if they’re not polished, the product these logos are selling is dazzling—one we simply cannot live without now: the right to vote.

Drawn by some 400 American school children from coast to coast, these logos target the young artists’ own parents, to get them to the polls on November 3. Dedicated teachers have been struggling to reach them, sheltered in place, for months, now.

The project is the brainchild of a woman who just happens to have the email addresses of 2,000 art teachers across the country: Barbara Chandler Allen, who runs Fresh Artists, the Philadelphia nonprofit that gets students to donate the use of their art to support the purchase of art supplies and art programming in their underfunded schools.

Dreaming up a contest

Fresh Artists started out local, but soon had connections to towns across the country, because the idea was too amazing to keep to ourselves here in Philly.

When Allen, stir-crazy and feeling powerless and “practically feral” (her words!) in Covid-confinement, sought a way to do something about the sorry state of our democracy, she dreamed up a contest.

She’d get teachers of children from first through 12th grade to engage their students in a (virtual) conversation about the importance of voting. Then they’d each sit at their kitchen tables, using whatever was at hand, and translate their ideas into images, pictures they could show their families—some of them nonreaders and/or nonvoters—in a kind of a “one-slide slideshow” accompanied by a get-out-the-vote pitch.

Partnering with #VoteThatJawn was a natural fit, as Allen had worked in 2018 with the Philly outfit whose mission is to use the power of youth voice to bring 18-year-olds into civic engagement. And #VoteThatJawn has always believed that if you can tell other people why voting is important, you become a lifetime voter.

But how about kids even younger than 18? #VoteThatJawn had not harnessed all that energy.

Fresh Artists could.

Getting help from the pros

“I pictured an army of kiddos going out to pester their parents,” Allen says.

The “kiddos” loved it. So did teachers from 37 schools, not just from Philly and Camden, but from Alaska to the border town of Anthony, New Mexico, and parts east and west.

A cool marker sketch from Gadsden High School in Anthony, New Mexico

To help teachers talk about logos, Allen’s Fresh Artists enlisted working graphic designers to make mini-lessons—little videos—about the basics of their professions. Perfect for remote instruction, the designers were millennials with upbeat delivery, smiles, tattoos and clear examples of how to turn an idea into an image.

These videos gave a taste of Fresh Artists’ canceled annual Cool Jobs Expo event, where students meet arts professionals from Saturday Night Live puppet makers to museum art conservation experts to fashion designers.

One of the logo videos was recorded by Jason James, a Cool Jobs favorite, a tall African-American man who gets students’ attention by telling them that he’s LeBron James’ relative: JK! The designers added another level of instruction for children who seldom meet working artists in schools, not to mention remote school.

Rachel Brewster, lead art teacher in Norristown, PA’s East Norriton Middle School appreciated the designers’ messages. “Having actual graphic designers talk about how they should get set up, and what they should think about was very inspiring.

My students really enjoyed being able to get real life advice from somebody in the actual career. I have even had some of my students share with me that they think they want to go into graphic design after having done this lesson.”

And the kids got to drawing …  

Submissions started pouring in, colorful when children had crayons and markers, but often just drawn in pencil on lined paper. These, says Allen, exposed “the extreme paucity of creative tools present in homes from which they came.”

A penciled Pokémon-themed sketch from a student at Wissahickon Charter School

Fresh Artists aims most intentionally to work in underfunded schools. Because schools’ underfunding reflects the poverty of their neighborhoods, it’s no wonder that children had almost nothing to draw with at home during a pandemic that has disrupted the employment of four out of ten adults and sent a third of lower income families to seek food banks, according to Pew Research.

And yet, these kids, they drew. “It demonstrates the unfettered optimism of innate creativity and the triumph of the human spirit,” says Allen.

Along with art works came comments from the teachers and children.

A super-ethical Heather La Pera at Strawberry Mansion High School loved the idea, but had to help her students so much—they were also struggling to learn Google drawing— she didn’t think it was fair to submit them to the contest. But her students mastered a computer graphics system and design concepts along with civics.

Also at East Norriton Middle School, Susan Kelly’s 7th graders were “very much more aware than we give them credit for on the importance of voting.” Plus, they were extremely respectful of keeping their logos non-partisan,” a prime rule of the contest. The rule touched off some disagreements, with parents protesting their childrens’ rights to take sides politically, but disagreeing and arguing civilly is, at least partly, what it’s all about.

Rachel Brewster of East Norriton said that her students also harnessed their budding tween-age powers to annoy. Said one of them, “You can bug your family about voting to the point where they actually vote.”

Christina Seonia at Middle Years Alternative in Fairmount loved that her students were not just politically awakened, but got into the whole concept of design, what logos do, the nature of icons, etc. and learned how good design helps make a difference. “My students and I also discussed how cool it would be to see people in the city wearing their art!

Which is what will happen, albeit on a small scale, when the five first-prize winners have their logos printed on a T-shirt so they can strut their stuff in their own neighborhoods. Each winner also will receive a Home Art Studio Box full of supplies to keep them creating for years, plus 100 stickers printed with their own logos to decorate their backpacks and books, if schools ever reopen.

Every child who submitted a piece of art, however humble, will receive a certificate of congratulations. The contest was offered to students in various age groups, so as not to pit kindergartners against high school seniors. But as far as commentary goes, my prize would go to two first graders, age 6, from Thomas Holmes Elementary School. First, to the one who may be somebody’s presidential campaign manager in 2040:

“Hello USA! I have something to say!

Get out and vote, Don’t wait another day!”

And honorable mention to the one whose political instincts haven’t kicked in, but artistic ones certainly have:

”I really liked being able to use different colors!”

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler is the editor of #VotethatJawn and; from 1975 to 1995 she was Book Review editor, first at the Inquirer and then at The New York Times.

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