Harriet Tubman for President! Political pandemic coming of age

If you have not registered anyone to vote today, please follow #VoteThatJawn and help young people do it.

During this past crazy, half-remote Spring term, my Creative Writing student, Blake Kernen, came up with these games for #VoteThatJawn. “I Nominate…” invites youth to think about their friends as leaders. The games should slip easily into social media feeds and return young people’s political gaze from the magnetic self-regard of celebrity politics and power to the potential in their own communities.

Template by Blake Tanner

Then, the youth leaders and TAs wanted more: What if students don’t want to write anything? Couldn’t we do a version with Bingo-style attributes to choose from for students to circle. As a bonus, students used to thinking of leadership as bigness and power might begin to consider the value of servant-leadership, too: patience, good listening, hopefulness.

Template by Blake Tanner

We haven’t run the games yet. They are stored electronically, and now that a team of Summer Jawn Interns is making a calendar of registration and election dates, we’ll have a chain on which to string this and other great individual projects. Their first assignment together? An eight-minute video they recorded and produced during their very first week for Philly’s remote Juneteenth celebration.

For the second week, they read Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They took in the findings and then presented to each other this well-researched vision not just of what’s broken, but how we the people might mend it. Two students created graphics from the study using bold, attractive graphics and clear language.

Then, it was time to celebrate the ratifying of the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the vote in 1971. With partners Tom Quinn, leader of Philly Youth Vote, and ten student volunteers and Philly-area director Angie Hinton of My School Votes/When We All Vote, one group of Summer Jawn Interns held a socially-distanced voter registration drive at George Washington High, comedian Kevin Hart’s alma mater. Since Hart is now the Philly delegate for LeBron James’ More Than A Vote initiative, interns sent him IG messages. Like, Yoo-hoo! Some interns took initiative to drive to a nearby shopping strip, handing out flyers and registering a few people on the spot. Instagram Lives happened, from on and off-site. City Commissioner Omar Sabir drove up with an official statement. State Senator Shariff Street was there, too, and read it with him. That 4pm Friday event may have started a trend.

A Monday noontime Vote That Jawn YouTube speaker series, “How Does This Government Stuff Actually Work?” began with Pat Christmas, Policy Director of the Committee of Seventy, and will continue through July with attorney John Summers, who has worked with the Innocence Project and Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and attorney-activist Kadida Kenner of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Interns have been creating graphics, looking up facts, posting, making fliers, editing each other, meeting with youth leader mentors. Plus, they’ve come up with their own unique projects to research, illustrate, animate, bring alive. Making, making more, making better.

By mid-way through the third week, almost to the halfway mark, however, general overwhelm rolled in: so many emails, spreadsheets, Docs, GroupMe vs. Slack, forms, W-9s, invoices. And no matter where they were participating from at the moment — Florida, Texas, Georgia, Connecticut, New York, Pakistan, as well as Philadelphia and environs, these youth who live or study and vote in Philly were exhausted. Conscientious and insightful youth leaders, too. And mentors. It’s been Zooms and gigs, cancelled jobs and jobs gone remote. Family tensions: parents and guardians telecommuting, or essential and overworked, or out-of-work and broke and stressed; siblings at home needing meals or care or supervision; elderly relatives, so vulnerable, whether at home or far away. A few interns living solo fight loneliness. Usually on board with our relentless problem-solving mantra, the Jawn team took a moment to admit the toll of COVID. Youth who support themselves through college talked about not getting stimulus checks. Others about the abysmal state of remote learning for themselves and younger sibs. And now there’s the Fall Term uncertainty: school maybe remote, maybe in-person, international student friends threatened with deportation, even as the virus spikes. Up and up and up.

“Is this a conversation we can help young people have?” I asked. “ Can we connect it to voting?”

Stupid damned question. They’d been talking, across borders of the little Zoom boxes as well as lines of race, income, region, and experience. Their honesty merging into community had felt spiritual. Now they looked back at me, eyes expressionless over the Mute icons.

The great Black Liberation theologian Howard Thurman, in his Meditations of the Heart, says that from the “deliberate relatedness” of these young people “arise all of the joyous overtones of human relations.” Before my task-oriented query, and later, again, I felt this. It’s the balm of community, even under siege.

“Life is Alive,” Thurman writes to assure us of the power in these relationships. Yes, it seems like weeds sprout faster than vegetables, but complaining keeps us from absorbing the energy common to all growth. Caring for each other lets civic engagement come from that deeper, common pool of life. Like more viral loads infect more easily, more care amongst the group turbo charges collaborative creativity. It’s why we long for concerts and rallies and theaters and stadiums full of breath together and droplets. This Summer Jawn is a group coming of age through a time of viral everything, except, it seems, orderly voter registration. But they are partaking of the life under this threatened system of human connection called democracy. Like so many other groups around the country, they can wake up young people they touch. Their peers want an adulthood that promises not just liberty and privilege, but greater justice. More humanity. More health. And life.

One young woman talked about watching the social media posts of her cousins in New Zealand, as they prepare to go back to school in person. We took it in quietly, how delicious it would be to have used well our stay-at-home time, to have emerged slowly, a chrysalis nation, proud of ourselves and each other, lessons learned. Instead, we opened our doors and burst out. We are happening to each other, the virus raging, and rage going viral. So many dead and wounded, out-of-work, homeless, broke, and cut off from the world and Zoom-zooming past expression of our mounting grief about this “body of death,” to use language from Thurman’s theology of Black Liberation.

Make no mistake, it is liberation they seek. And yes, Black. Coming up with structures to enslave Black people, and then to keep them less-than in America set the standard for American inequality. Black Lives Matter. Black Liberation can restore America to her ideals and liberate us all.

Summer #VoteThatJawn interns are coming of age as political, pandemic, and protest tears rip open the old structures. How to increase justice, connection, a gross national index of justice, if we had one, or health or happiness? They’re using data and scholarship; arts and narrative; protests; legacy and new journalism; fresh approaches to policy, such as those from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; and wisdom from American ancestors like Harriet Tubman, late in life, a leader for women’s suffrage.

Photo of Harriet Tubman from scrapbook once owned by suffragists Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller.

“Back of all the outcry,” says Howard Thurman, “back of all the protests, is the assumption that rejects the ultimate character of evil.”

As #VoteThatJawn theme song rappers MG and Ma’tthue Raheem say in a vernacular re-stating of Thurman and the Interns: “If you promote that Jawn, vote that jawn.”

Author, lecturer, playwright