Get Out the Vote festival encourages students to vote

All speakers and performers at festival are people of color

MIT student groups held the inaugural Get Out the Vote festival (GOTV Fest) Oct. 11 to mobilize Boston-area college students to vote in the upcoming general election and “create momentum in our communities of color to vote,” according to the Undergraduate Association’s (UA) website. All speakers and performers at the event were people of color. The event had about 1000 attendees.

The festival was organized by the UA, MITVote, Asian American Initiative (AAI), Latino Cultural Center (LCC), American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and Chinese Students Club (CSC), with support from the South Asian Association of Students and Black Students’ Union. 

MITVote hosted a Zoom room throughout the festival to help attendees with voter registration or general voting questions.

“Communities of color are often underrepresented at the polls, due to a variety of reasons including language barriers or systemic voter suppression. This is an event of education, solidarity and celebration,” the UA website writes. “With the upcoming election, the student vote matters more than ever, especially given the situation with the polls this year.”

Performers at the event included Yo-Yo Ma, Duckwrth, Joyce Wrice, Bren Joy, Brandon Banks, Raye Zaragoza, HOAX, Mariela Shaker, the Couchsleepers, Solstice Fayemz, and Lil Seyi. MIT’s Asian Dance Team, Bhangra, Mirchi, and Casino Rueda dance groups also contributed performances. 

President L. Rafael Reif spoke at the event. GOTV also hosted a Q&A session with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla ’94, and Mayor of Cambridge Sumbul Siddiqui. 

Reif urged students to value “the importance of voting and civic engagement, especially for people whose voices society has not listened to well,” including “not only communities of color but young people in general.” Voting is “one of our most essential rights as Americans — the right to have a voice in our government.” 

“As an immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen, I have always treasured the act of voting because I know that the essential rights and structures and institutions of our society… are fragile. They can disappear, and they require our protection,” Reif said. “If you treasure living in a democracy, please make sure you support it. Please make sure you vote...This election, and every election, make your voice heard.” 

Reif also encouraged students to “find ways to engage in your local communities and government at every level” throughout their careers. “Bring what you’re learning, at MIT and elsewhere, and help your neighbor, your city, your state, and your nation to make wise choices for the good of all.”

Padilla said that individuals who don’t vote “do not have a say in who it is that’s making these critical decisions on your behalf” on issues such as climate change, access to healthcare, technological innovation, gun safety, and affordability of higher education. “The way we can make our voice heard in the political process is through our votes.”

Padilla said that California’s government mailed all voters a ballot and expanded the in-person voting window to improve voter access in the 2020 general election. Additionally, he said that online and automatic voter registration have resulted in an increased number of registered voters in California in recent years. 

Padilla said that he became involved with California government shortly after graduating from MIT because he felt strongly about issues affecting immigrants, such as California’s 1994 Proposition 187 prohibiting undocumented immigrants from using public services. He said that his engineering education at MIT taught him problem-solving skills useful to his career in government and that “an MIT education is such a solid foundation for critical thinking and problem solving that it applies across the board.”

Siddiqui said that Cambridge City Council “reflects the diversity of thought we see throughout the city because people use their votes as an extension of their voice.” She said that voting allows individuals to “have a say in the policies and the world you hope to see,” adding that “the right to vote has been so hard-fought,” especially in the context of current and historical voter suppression in the U.S.

Siddiqui said that the Cambridge government encouraged voting by mail and relocated several of its polling sites to facilities with lower risk for COVID-19 to improve voter access and safety. She said that Cambridge has also held socially distanced voter education events and distributed educational materials to promote voter participation.

Representatives from Asian Pacific Islander American Vote and North American Indian Center of Boston also presented at the festival to encourage students of color to vote.

Short videos of about 20 MIT students discussing why they choose to vote were played at the event.

The GOTV organizing team consisted of AISES President Luke Bastian ’21, UA Vice President Yu Jing Chen ’22, AAI executive board member Alana Chandler ’22, CSC executive board member Savannah En ’21, LCC President Uriel Magana Salgado ’21, UA representative Mallika Pajjuri ’23, and MITVote representative Nikasha Patel ’22. 

The Tech held an interview with Chandler, Chen, and Patel after the event.

Chen said that the event was “really special” in “how many student groups came together for this,” citing how the event “started in AAI as just an idea.” GOTV Fest was conceived as a “four-day” event, “each day highlighting a different community of color,” though it eventually took shape to become the event Sunday.

“This is the first time any of us had ever organized anything like this,” Chen said, adding that it was “only a week and a half before the event” that the team received “any confirmation” of attendance from many guest speakers or performing artists.

Additionally, Chen said that organizing the event was “very grassroots.” The organizing team had to “craft a budget and find a way to fund the event from the ground up, ultimately proposing” for the event to gain funding from the Office of Experiential Learning. The team also “had to stretch [its] creative muscles” to publicize the event, Chen said.

Chandler said that some artists only confirmed their appearance Oct. 7, so the team was “finalizing the schedule on the Friday before the event.” The team “wanted to include… big-name people” whenever possible, so “working with their busy schedules” was also challenging. Chandler added that being able to get the wide geographic array of artists and speakers at the event was “really unique” to the event being virtual.

Chen said that because the team had never organized such an event before, they were also unsure about how much to pay artists. The original budget request “was definitely undercutting it” and had to be rewritten, Chen said.

Patel said that it was “a little nerve-racking” to not know “until the night before” or “day of” if the video files artists sent in would be what the team had expected. The team was “lucky” to have worked with “really professional artists” so everything “just kind of came together,” Patel said.

Many of the performers, including Brandon Banks and HOAX, had their segments done live during the event, Chandler said. Other artists contributed pre-recorded performances.

“There are a lot of people who feel like their vote doesn’t matter” due to the state, county, or precinct they live in, Patel said, but she hopes the festival showed in an “exciting way” that these beliefs “aren’t true.”

Chen said that she hopes that the event will show community members how “one person can really make a difference” by creating “waves within their own communities and inspire the vote there.”

Chandler added that in addition to promoting voting, she hopes that the event “made people happy,” especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We wanted [GOTV Fest] to be really fun” to “hopefully” take people’s “headspace out of their house… and back to the MIT community in a non-academic way.”

Editor’s note: Alana Chandler is an arts writer at The Tech.