Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama will make their first-ever major campaign appearance together this week. They’ll be in North Carolina, a political battleground in so many ways. In September, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was killed by a Charlotte police officer; this month, a Republican county office in the state was firebombed; and, of course, there are the ongoing fights over voting rights and an infamous bathroom bill that discriminates against transgender people. North Carolinians have already started voting, and the state remains key to either candidate’s path to victory.
Clinton and Obama will be rallying together at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem on Thursday. They’ll probably have a tight schedule while in town, but I hope they take the five-minute drive from campus to visit the former home of a slaveholding family where the Pro Humanitate (“For Humanity,” Wake Forest’s motto) Institute is now housed. That’s where the institute’s chair, political science professor (and my former boss) Melissa Harris-Perry, has established the headquarters for Wake the Vote, a compelling new experiment in civic education.
Harris-Perry describes Wake the Vote as a “class plus”: It’s part of the Wake Forest curriculum, but with the congeniality and comradeship you’d find on an athletic team. The program has, in its first year, immersed an ideologically diverse set of Wake Forest students in the political process and sponsored activities for the public, like debate-watching parties.
“The first part of it was working for all the campaigns, crossing the aisle,” said Harris-Perry, who also directs the university’s Anna Julia Cooper Center out of the institute. “The second part of Wake the Vote campaign? Working for candidates that [the students] chose. And then the third part of it, which they’re doing right now, is taking everything they’ve learned and turning it to the community.”
Earlier this month, Harris-Perry invited me to Winston-Salem to see the biggest Wake the Vote project yet. When I arrived, I first noticed the three massive black slabs that stand in staggered formation on the institute’s front lawn, each with an image on its front: Wake the Vote students smiling with U.S. Senator Cory Booker; a graph showing voter participation by age; an American flag wrapped around a black man’s face in the manner of a hijab. The pieces have been there since early October and will stand through Election Day to attract visitors to the UP TO US art installation inside the Institute, which features 35 pieces by 12 artists.
A signed Shepard Fairey print of his famed Obama “HOPE” poster is one of the first things you see inside the institute itself, along with a massive self-portrait of Philadelphia artist Russell Craig, his brown skin and black hair painted atop a montage of procedural documents that link him to the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. In the main hallway, across from mid-20th-century presidential campaign posters from each party, wooden polling booths contain information intended to provoke discussion about voting rights. Full-body portraits of conservative and liberal voters are part of a video display, with red and blue backgrounds that correspond to their party of choice. In another room, portraits of gun violence victims fill an entire wall. Above their photos is a solemn truth: “THEY CAN’T VOTE.” A photo of Scott, whom police killed one hour away from campus, is among them.
Despite its provocative imagery, the UP TO US exhibit invites its viewers to drop partisanship in favor of reckoning with reality. The rooms on the institute’s ground floor are divided into four principal themes: education, immigration, policing and community violence, and voting rights and youth participation. The project was conceived and is managed by the 30 Wake the Vote students, sparked by their travels this summer to Politico’s Hub in Cleveland — a lounge that hosted newsmaker interviews and Republican National Convention watch parties — and to the Truth to Power art exhibit in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention. Those trips gave the students an idea of how to share what they experienced on the road with their classmates back at Wake Forest, and how to get everyone excited about voting for the first time — especially for two candidates who have both struggled to inspire millennials.
“People saw this art and then would [say], ‘OK, let’s talk about how this makes you feel. Maybe you don’t have the same position on me as gun violence, but we’re going to look at this painting and we’re going to talk about it,’” said sophomore Ciara Ciez about the exhibits she and her fellow Wake the Voters visited during the conventions. “So for us, it was just natural to want to have a space where people could come and look at different topics, maybe something about immigration, and have the conversation about it. Even if people disagree or whatever, we want people to talk about it.”
So while the Wake the Vote undergraduates have worked in campaigns and traveled throughout the country to directly engage with politicians — visiting the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, for instance — they chose, after the conventions, to use art to make a final argument for political engagement.
“I think having something such as a piece of art is an easier medium to ease people into having those conversations,” said sophomore Katherine Cassidy. “I know, for me, some of my friends will want to have a debate on a specific topic, and I’ll [say], ‘I don’t want to do that because I haven’t researched it enough yet to know my exact stance to have a discussion on that conversation.’ But if you have a piece of art, you can talk about it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really horrible.’”
Wyatt Closs, a professional artist whose creative firm Big Bowl of Ideas curated the exhibit with Wake the Vote, said that there’s “an openness that comes with observing art” — certainly a quality that’s missing in a political era where every speech must feel like a sledgehammer. “Art is one of those forms that pulls people in,” Closs said, “in a way that five different op-eds in the New York Times never will.”
The exhibit is attracting visitors like The Mothers of the Movement, the group of bereaved women who lost children including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Jordan Davis to police violence, and who are now supporting Clinton. It’s also caught the attention of ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, which partnered with Wake the Vote for voter registration efforts earlier in the semester and is planning a massive election night event with musical acts and DJs at the group’s home base.
“It’s one thing to take a political science class,” said Carl MacPhail, a sophomore from Charlotte. “But to actually go and see what’s actually going on is really cool. So I think other campuses, especially for other elections, could definitely replicate this, try to get a bipartisan group of students together and go to different campaign events and try to talk about issues, especially [ones] that millennials care about.”
It seems, beyond the UP TO US exhibit, that Harris-Perry and her students have a model for political engagement that shouldn’t just spread to other campuses. Actual campaigns may want to take a hint from Wake the Vote, too.
CORRECTION (10/27/16, 2:05 p.m. ET): The Wake the Vote headquarters and Pro Humanitate Institute was the home of a slaveholding family. An earlier version of this story said it was located on a former plantation house.