Party as a Political Act

“We pulled off an event that invoked the shock of something completely different, but was also universally familiar, and we did it in the middle of downtown. I feel good about that at the basest level.”

We met Donovan McKnight last Spring when he participated in our School for Creative Activism in North Carolina. McKnight is the co-director of Face to Face Greensboro, a community advocacy organization that promotes grassroots change through old-fashioned, face-to-face dialogue. We caught up with him recently, after he and his colleagues staged a huge event called Show of Hands 2011, a city-wide party to foster community and increase voter participation.

CAA: The party looks like it was fun! How did the idea evolve?

Donovan McKnight: Similar to what was said in the video, we were really trying to think of how to get our demographic engaged and informed in the local election. What would be the best way to do that? Well, we’re big on events. Actual, in-person, flesh-and-blood gatherings where people are sharing the same physical space. Our town, Greensboro, North Carolina, is still pretty divided in terms of race. Folks in West Greensboro are very unfamiliar with the East side of the town, and vice versa. There’s a shortage of places for these two groups of people come together. Downtown – the city’s center – is, geographically at least, the closest we can get. So we decided to have the event right in the middle of our town, in the liminal space that is neither East nor West.

So we knew we wanted an event. But what should that event look like? Well, for most people, not just youngish folks, civic engagement isn’t a very exciting idea, especially in a local context. For instance, voter turnout in Greensboro for local elections is around 20%. That was shocking to me, first learning that. So we said, let’s just throw a giant party in street, out in the open for everyone to see. Let’s have good music, both hip hop and rock music. Let’s get some good southern food out there, good beer too, of course. Let’s make it so it’s difficult for people to NOT come to this event. So once the party is set, let’s work in voter information. Hell, let’s invite the candidates to come hang out with their prospective constituents. Let’s also invite other applicable civic organizations to set up shop at our party: Young Democrats, Young Republicans, League of Women Voters, etc. We also peppered the space with a large-scale projection of voter information, profiling the races, as well as the dates and locations of voting sites. We had a custom digital photo booth, a cornhole setup (look this up if you’re not familiar), Wii bowling with candidate avatars, and an online station for election research.

The general strategy here is to have a party that is targeted at a certain demographic and happens to be thematic around the upcoming municipal election. Pretty simple really.

CAA: What issues did you hope to address? Whom did you hope to address?

DM: This action was pretty much free of any specific issues. We wanted to keep it as bi-partisan as possible. Our main goal was to bring together youngish people from across the city, from all districts, to party together and become aware of the local election and in turn increase voter turnout in Greensboro.

CAA: Was it effective?

DM: The event was definitely successful. People from all areas of Greensboro came out and partied together. Candidates showed up and had beers and food with potential voters. People witnessed a unique happening in the middle of their town, organized by their peers. We can’t really measure how many of those folks actually voted. I think, in large party, civic engagement is a long and continuous effort. It’s not everyone’s thing, but we’ll keep working on events such as this to get folks informed and activated.

CAA: What tactics did you use? Who or what inspired you?

DM: In my time at the School for Creative Activism we learned about the Ethical Spectacle, a large-scale public display that is good-natured, well-intentioned, and kind of mind blowing. I think that’s what we accomplished. We pulled off an event that invoked the shock of something completely different, but was also universally familiar, and we did it in the middle of downtown. I feel good about that at the basest level.

I loved that we were able to use hip-hop and rock music in the way that those two genres historically emerged – as activators. A simple thing like a mic and PA… it’s a powerful public tool.

I also love that the event wasn’t a divisive one. There was no left or right or us or them. It was about all of us coming together and having a good time in the same space and becoming aware of our options as common citizens. This sort of civility is a really powerful thing.

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