#HTownVotes: Artists Mobilize the Vote in 2020

October 21, 2020  •  10 minute read

By Andrea Assaf, Art2Action Inc.

Clockwise from top left: Kemi OG, Miguel Alvarez, Kooma & the Locas, Riyaaz Qawwali, Reggie Hanna, Karen Martinez, Kristina Wong, Paul Cuevas, plus logos for MECA, Tofu Riot, and Voice the Vote.

I. How I Accidentally Wound Up Designing a Regranting Initiative

Sometime in August, Frances Valdez, the executive director of Houston in Action (HiA), called me. We had been working together for nearly a year, discovering and evolving a partnership between Art2Action—a producing and presenting organization that supports the work of artists of color, women-identified, and LGBTQ2+ artists—and Houston in Action, a civic engagement, community organizing force in Harris County, Texas. We were introduced by Frances’s mother, Alice Valdez, the executive director of MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts). During the July 2019 NPN Mid-Year Meeting in San Diego, Alice asked me to have coffee with her. I said yes, of course, because, well, if Alice asks, you just say yes! She explained that Frances, as a lawyer who grew up in the world of MECA, deeply understood the importance of arts and culture in community work. Frances had expressed an interest in developing a cultural organizing strategy for Houston in Action and was looking for a consultant to guide that process. Alice thought I might just be the person.

In February 2020 I had just concluded my second in-person site visit, co-facilitating a two-day training as part of the Houston in Action Academy, for HiA’s extensive network of 50 organizations in Harris County. We’d also invited artists in the Houston area to come to a visioning session and a day on cultural organizing which included opportunities to meet and vision with organizers. This was to be the beginning of a process, including a series of site visits, that would develop collaborative pilot projects with artists and organizers working together around the Census. Those projects would inform the development of a strategy for voter engagement in the fall. We were on our way—and then everything changed.

Pandemic lockdowns due began in March, and all travel was cancelled. After the initial shock, Art2Action began to adapt all programming to virtual platforms. The Census deadline was extended, but the projects artists and organizers in Houston had brainstormed could not go forward as envisioned. Then the uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd began in late May, followed by countless others throughout the summer, and in an effort to be responsive we shifted our focus to online trainings in art-based healing practices for organizers and activists on the ground and racial justice trainings to develop a shared historical analysis and tools for HiA organizational members.

In August, the Chicks (having just dropped the “Dixie”) released a new video: “March March.” And Frances called me. The election was coming up, and it was as if pop culture had reminded us that art still had a role to play—a powerful one. Frances then did what a good leader should do: put money where her mouth is. She committed her organization to funding at least four artist projects—out of general operating funds, if need be—to be part of Houston in Action’s #HTownVotes effort to mobilize 100,000 new voters for the November election. Art2Action’s role was to: assist in the design and implementation of a call for artist proposals, facilitate a peer-learning cohort, and offer coaching and consultation to the funded artists, as well as to Houston in Action as it launched its first arts and cultural organizing initiative. And Frances didn’t stop there: she also committed to talking with funders, and by the time the review panel met to select proposals, she had raised enough money to award 12 artists/arts groups: eight at $10,000 and four at $5,000 (two of which became a collaboration, for a total of eleven projects).

II. Getting Out the Vote Through Art

Eleven is the number of transformation. Maybe that’s why it keeps popping up in my work. I didn’t mean for it to be eleven, it just worked out that way. It’s an awkward number, but given that the goal is to increase voter turnout in this year’s election, I feel like eleven is kinda perfect.

“This is the most important election of my lifetime.” It’s a familiar statement. I believed it in 2000. I believed it again in 2008 and again in 2016. Each time, it seems, the stakes get higher. But this time, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, no matter who you plan to vote for, I think everyone feels it: this is the most important election in my life so far.

Artists feel it, too. Whether it’s dread, fear, hope, anxiety, desperation, determination, panic, optimism, or everything all at once, the emotions loom large. Many of us are hungry for ways to get involved, to try to make a difference, to have an impact with our work. And these artists are doing it!

The #HTownVotes Artists are:

  • Miguel Alvarez, Voto 2020: This series of five films, made in partnership with Mi Familia Vota, launched with the short documentary film, Houston, which follows Stephanie, a 17-year-old activist who has been mobilizing young voters for the last few years.
  • Paul Cuevas, HTownVotes LIVE!: This high-energy variety show featuring Houston-based performing and visual artists encourages communities of color to vote. It livestreams October 23 and 24 and goes online shortly thereafter.
  • Reggie Hanna, Count Me In: A multidisciplinary project with the Community Artists’ Collective, created in partnership with the Urban League, Count Me In ignites voter awareness through street theater, youth writing contests, and a gospel bicycle tour!
  • Koomah & The Locas, Try Voting!: Created in partnership with United We Dream and Organización Latina de Trans, this commercial-parody PSA project features four fun and campy video shorts encouraging LGBTQ2+ folx to vote.
  • Karen Martinez, It Takes A Friend: This multimedia video project follows the journey of a Houston voter who has pledged to vote and to shepherd three more people to the polls.
  • MECA, Tu Voto es Poder: This digital media project uses popular Latinx forms, including weekly online Lotería game nights (every Thursday at 7 pm Central!), memes, gifs, and videos, and an original theme song about voting!
  • Kemi OG, Interference: Choreographer Kemi OG creates cinematic dance on social issues impacting women of the African diaspora, emphasizing the need to vote to impact change. Associated panel discussions will be held in partnership with the Alliance.
  • Riyaaz Qawwali, Discourse for Desis: Riyaaz Qawwali will present a music and dialogue series to engage Houston’s South Asian community this fall, in partnership with EMgage Texas, OCA Greater Houston, Daya, and APF.
  • Tofu Riot, The Animated Vote: Tofu Riot creates vote-themed animations to be experienced on Instagram and YouTube. The project, a partnership with PIVOT and OCA Greater Houston, includes an Animated Vote website that seeks to engage Vietnamese communities in voting.
  • Kristina Wong, Vote for the Future: A series of shareable, viral videos feature Asian American kids encouraging voter-aged Americans to get out the vote!The project is translated in partnership with the Chinese Community Center (CCC) Houston.
  • We Are Writer’s Block & Perseverance Theatre, Voice the Vote: From the Arctic to the southern border, Writer’s Block & Perseverance teams up to co-host virtual poetry workshops, open mics, and slams, lifting up youth voices from Alaska to Texas! This project was created in partnership with the League of Women Voters.

Eleven is the number of transformation.

We invite you to participate in any or all of the online events and to enjoy the incredible creativity coming from this fabulous cohort of artists! Please keep checking the #HTownVotes webpage as these projects develop and evolve.

Can you help us amplify this work? Please follow the hashtag #HTownVotes on social media, interact with the posts (like, comment, or repost), and share them with opinion leaders, organizations, community members, and people in your sphere of influence who can help the artists’ work reach those who need a nudge, that last spark of inspiration, to VOTE!

III. The Power of Partnerships

At Art2Action, we believe in the power of partnerships increase our capacity to create change. Partnerships are central to our theory of change, and our operating structure. Cross-sector partnerships, in particular, make it possible to reach communities beyond theater-goers who are attending events, and they open a possibility for interdisciplinary learning beyond, and through, artistic practice. Truly interdisciplinary—not just across artistic disciplines, but across fields such psychology (as in our multi-year Veteran Arts program in partnership with the VA and USF) or engineering (as in our upcoming work on the DRONE project) or community organizing.

As with our partnership with Houston in Action, art can be a catalyst for civic engagement, reaching community members beyond those who are already active in civic life. Arts and cultural practice can lure, inspire, excite, or move people to action. Organizers know how to track data. They know how to get information to people and to follow up. They know how to get permits for a march or a rally, build local leadership, and navigate laws and policies. But, to be honest, text messages and phone trees don’t always inspire. In the same way that fundraisers say “giving is emotional,” giving back to society in the form of taking action on civic issues is emotional, too. That’s where art comes in.

We are now at a tipping point in the United States. More and more cities, and some states, are now majority people of color. Now elections not only depend on who people vote for, but also on who decides not to vote—or whose vote is being suppressed.

Disengagement is also emotional. It’s the result of years of hurt, anger to the point of exhaustion, and disillusionment to the point of depression. Art can reach communities that have felt disengaged by decades, even centuries, of political disenfranchisement. Traditional voter engagement methods can’t always reach demographics that are already disillusioned, such as queer youth of color—but perhaps Koomah & the Locas can, through parody, sarcasm, and camp, in their Try Voting! video series. Organizations don’t always have enough translators to reach every marginalized population, such as Vietnamese elders who are not literate in English—but maybe Tofu Riot’s animations of characters based on Vietnamese foods can. Campaigners can’t always reach individuals who aren’t already interested in policy issues—but perhaps Riyaaz Qawwali can draw the largest Pakistani community in the US (which happens to be in Houston) together through music and open a dialogue about the pandemic, xenophobia, and why it’s important to vote.

When Houston in Action committed to funding artists, it committed to funding those who come from, identify with, are deeply connected to, live and work in, or are culturally competent in the communities it wanted to reach and mobilize. Why is this important? Artists who come from the communities that have been historically disenfranchised—namely, Black, Indigenous, and artists of color, LGBTQ2+ and women artists—can create work that speaks to their own communities, in their own languages (literal, cultural, or aesthetic), and say: “I see you. Your voice matters. We matter. We have power, and we can leverage that power if we mobilize together.”

A lesson I witness and relearn, over and over, is that when artists and organizers work together there is a difference between “empowering” and building collective power. This is what organizers know and do. In the arts, and especially in community engagement programs, we often hear artists and presenting organizations say, “I want my work to empower . . .” somebody. Well, empowering is certainly a more noble aim than disempowering—and unfortunately, many artistic works, or approaches to presenting, are in fact disempowering, particularly if they are laced with unconscious or implicit bias or problematic representations. Of course, we would rather empower, right? But still, that is not the same as building collective power.

What would it look like if everyone one of us—every theater, presenting organization, or artistic company—shifted to a desire and commitment to build collective power with our communities? What would it look like if arts organizations adopted the core values and operating principles of community organizing? What if the center of power shifted from boards and executives to the people we actually want to build collective power with—artists and communities? What kinds of shifts would that create in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns? What kind of cultural and social change would ripple through our nation?

I know, artists and arts organizations are already stretched thin, maxed out, and struggling to survive 2020. I know, many of us feel like “we don’t have the capacity” to take on the real work of community organizing, or, perhaps, that “it’s not our mission.” Do we care about meaningful impact, lasting change, transformation? YES! “But we can’t do it all,” we say.

That’s where partnerships come in. Effective partnerships rely on honestly and openly sharing the expertise that everyone brings to the process. They rely on an asset-based, abundance-minded approach that celebrates the skills, experience, knowledge, and value of everyone in the circle. As an artist, I don’t have to be an expert in every issue, local policy, language, data point, research approach, or tracking mechanism, if I have built strong collaborations with those who are. As an organizer, I don’t have to micromanage the art or cultural engagement process that will be created in conjunction with a campaign if I have genuinely built a relationship of trust with collaborating artists. Trust means knowing that we are all working together from a shared set of core values, and that we have a strong enough relationship to have honest conversations when we feel that intention and impact are not aligned.

Trust takes time. And as adrienne maree brown wrote in Emergent Strategy, this work moves at the speed of trust.

IV. So, what happens after?

We are all works in progress. We know we have a long road ahead. The work is not done after this election, after this project. No matter what the outcome is in November—or when we know it—there will be more work to do. The Census will determine the next 10 years of federal funding and representatives for our states, and we know that it is flawed. The battle over gerrymandering will ensue. The Supreme Court will hear cases that will shape our lives for decades to come. Black lives matter, and to ensure that Black lives matter equally before the law the entire criminal justice system must be reformed or revolutionized. People are still being detained and deported, families are still being separated at the border, human rights are still being violated. The pandemic is still raging, with cases on the rise in more than 40 states as I write this, and Americans are still dying from it, more than any other nation in the world. Climate change is still a crisis looming before us. There is so much work to do.

I hope only that this project, however small, will lay the groundwork for partnerships that last. I hope that it will be a model for a way of working that, if replicated, will change how we engage and what level of impact we can have. I hope that, together, Art2Action and Houston in Action and the artists involved in #HTownVotes, will be able to articulate models and practices that make a difference—not only in our fields, but to the communities we serve. And I hope you all will join us, in building collective power.

About the Author

Andrea Assaf is a performer, writer, director and cultural organizer. She is the founding artistic director of Art2Action Inc. and national coordinator for the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation. Her original work, Eleven Reflections on September, has been featured at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) as part of the National Asian American Theatre Festival, La MaMa, the Apollo Theatre, the Kennedy Center, and internationally. Awards include: NEFA National Theatre Project (2019), NPN Creation Fund Commission (2019 and 2011), finalist for the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism (2017), Princess Grace Award (2010), and others. Andrea has a masters degree in Performance Studies and a BFA in Acting, both from NYU. She currently serves on the board of the Consortium of Asian American Theatres & Artists (CAATA), Alternate ROOTS, and is a steering committee member of the Middle Eastern/North African Theatre-Makers Alliance (MENATMA).