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The Power of ONE WORD

How an Idea Jawnified the Culture of Philly Voting

By Gigi Varlotta

The author and Professor Lorene Cary. Source: @votethatjawn on Instagram

All I did was sign up for a course taught by someone whose play I loved. It was last winter, just before theaters shut down. What I didn’t realize was that I was also signing up for an inside look into what it takes to get youth in Philly registered to vote. From the jump I began learning what VoteThatJawn is all about: out of the box thinking and creative solutions. Combining art, education, passion, technology, all with the end goal of not only getting young people registered to vote, but getting them excited about being heard. So how about a voter registration House Party for Philly Youth, by Philly artists? Or for those who don’t speak English . . . check out the #VoteThatJawn Spanish Registration Video. And a pop-up art contest for students in K-12 who can’t vote yet, but want to be involved in the political process. Peep the Fresh Artists #VoteThatJawn, Jr. Art Exhibition. And definitely leveraging some of those viral TikTok trends… that one about romanticizing your life. Jay Falk created an iconic spinoff about applying to be a poll worker. (She’s the founder of the High School Voter Project.)

VoteThatJawn is effective because it allows young people to share their experiences through more mediums than ever before. From a #StormtheElection virtual event that combined poetry readings and live music, to showcasing businesses celebrating voting like Carine's Bridal Atelier shop in D.C., to highlighting personal stories. Sheyla Street’s, for instance. By telling the story of kids like this kickass high-schooler who is a leading social justice and voter advocate in Philly, VoteThatJawn creates innovative ways to get the vote out. I know that for me, a TikTok of a mom and her daughter bopping to the song, “How your voice gonna matter if you don’t vote?” or seeing dancing mailboxes at a voter registration drive are things that not only catch my attention, but resonate with me. So I jumped right in. I made infographics for Instagram about who was on the ballot, I shared a personal story of why I vote, I biked to a high-school ten miles away to help with a voter registration drive. I even did the worm for a TikTok about democracy. Getting out the vote? We jawnified that. And I’m lucky to have been a part of it.

So without a doubt, my perspective on voting has changed. And the truth is, that’s mostly a result of seeing so many other young people thrilled about making their voices heard. Being able to learn, collaborate, and grow with people in Philly was illuminating. One specific interaction really caught my attention, made me feel like I was doing something actually meaningful. I was tabling for VoteThatJawn with Professor Lorene Cary (the writer whose play got me involved in the first place) and some other students in our Writing and Politics course. Hours on the corner of 40th and Locust, where most people see our table and pamphlets and quicken their step and look away, no eye contact, keep moving. It’s a chilly Fall evening and nobody wants to talk to strangers, especially about voting. We’re here to get out the vote but not many folks are jumping to join us. And then towards the end of the night, a group of five young guys walks out of Qdoba. The minute they see the hats, their eyes light up. VoteThatJawn?? I’ll take a hat! Then like a ripple effect, each of them asks for a hat too. They were laughing, taking pictures of one another in the hats, smiling. Jawn. A word that was theirs. I could tell by their expressions, their smiles, how heard they felt. Represented. Valued. Seeing their word printed. Suddenly I was reminded how much representation matters. How do you get people to care about voting, or even anything? Make it mean something, make it a jawn they know, care about, and relate to. Then boom. You have people’s attention.

Much of the time when people don’t vote, it’s not because they don’t care, it's because they feel that their voice doesn’t matter. This is something that's learned, through generations of neglect. And it makes sense. Certain groups have consistently been left behind by the government. And that’s why I remember that moment with the hats so clearly. Because of the pure joy I saw in the eyes of those young men. VoteThatJawn! Who thought that voting could be fun? For us? We can vote that jawn. It’s the power of a word, of an idea. The best way to get people excited about voting is figure out what matters to them. Connect with the people, listen to them. For Philly, it meant figuring out how to jawnify voting registration efforts. Find the youth, for the youth, by the youth. I’m excited to see how this will continue to evolve in the future. Will it change the culture around democracy and civic engagement, with more of a space to explore issues and create productive dialogue? I can’t wait. And in the meantime, there is one thing all of us can do. Keep voting that jawn.

Gigi Varlotta is an sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying sociology and Africana Studies. While she is planning on pursuing civil rights law, she strives to ensure all voices are heard in the political process.

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