During the 2016 presidential election, when I was just five months shy of being old enough to earn my voice in American politics, I learned that neither of my parents were exercising their right to vote. With the midterm elections swiftly approaching, I have again been faced with the challenge of convincing my parents of the importance of actively participating in democracy. Enter Just Act, a theatre-based organization that makes issues of injustice within communities visible and provides the tools to address those issues.
“We live in a murky and magnificent time,” says Lisa Jo Epstein, the founder and executive director of Just Act. Sweat beads on the foreheads of two men wearing traditional patterned African clothing as they beat urgently on drums. In a dimly lit room of peeling blue paint and exposed brick, red and white lights twinkle as not more than 30 people sit captivated by the thrum of the drum and the woman staring out at them. Energy pulses in the room, and individuals of all ages and races listen as the pounding drum grows louder and the beating hands quicken in pace. “Things are malleable. Change can still happen.”
On Monday, September 17th, I attended the very first People’s Jam on Justice hosted by Just Act. With the 2018 midterm elections closely approaching, Just Act had created the campaign “Just Act, Go Vote” in order to to embolden youth with the tools to rally reluctant voters to register. From a game show about random facts of voting to the enacting of scenarios in which individuals had to confront others adamant about not voting, Just Act was able to create an immersive experience that elicited more than a couple of laughs and fingersnaps.
But rather than just acting as spectators to a performance, members of the audience took on the roles of performers and were able to change the course of events that were being played out on stage. Not only did this serve as a metaphor for the fact that democracy is not a spectator sport, it also allowed the audience to try out new conversations and prepare themselves for new realities.
We audience members confronted characters that were reluctant to vote. The task/challenge: figure out how to confront those with differing opinions without creating conflict. After each performance, the audience would collectively evaluate the merits and demerits of each strategy, leaving all attendees with a better understanding of how best to rally new voters.
The performance that most struck me was when the character Rock the Vote attempted to convince Debbie Downer to exercise her right to vote. As a woman who had campaigned and knocked on doors for both of the last two elections, but still found herself disappointed in the outcomes, Debbie had been led to the conclusion that her vote did not truly matter. Many audience members taking on the role of Rock the Vote used a similar strategy with Debbie that I have exhausted time and time again with my parents. They bombarded her with facts about voting and listed off ways that she could make a difference.
Then the change! Someone tried to understand Debbie’s point of view. Only then did she begin to reconsider her position. It is in bridging the gap between perspectives and treating every person’s decisions as valid that we are able to help others understand the importance of their vote.
This seemingly simple technique never occurred to me in my attempts to convince my parents to vote. I had always focused on the division between our beliefs and never tried to understand their side of things. I believe that the skills that I have learned from the Just Act, Go Vote event will serve me well in better approaching the topic of voting with my parents. Now, I know to ask about how it feels to be progressive children of immigrants in their adopted red-state home and to understand their reasons for not voting before listing off reasons for why they should.
Samira Mehta is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying biochemistry and chemistry. She is a writer for Unearthed Penn, a free science magazine for West Philadelphia middle and high school students.