Poetry and Politics meet Millennials through Multimedia Campaign

Colorado residents might have noticed an eye-catching short video recently posted to their Facebook feed. Denver-based New Era Colorado, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, commissioned “This is Why We Vote” to engage young voters in the democratic process. This is the organization’s mission since 2006, according to their website.

“Every generation needs a revolution,” says Toluwanimi Obiwole, Denver’s Youth Poet Laureate. In the two-minute and 30-second video, she gazes directly into the camera against the backdrop of a city skyline and a rushing train. A montage of protestors, smog-belching smoke stacks, and immigrant mothers rolls behind the soundtrack of Obiwole’s poem.

Obiwole’s poem compares the voting process and the need for social change to a powerful, unstoppable river. She notes that, “One in three eligible voters this election will be under 35 years old.”

Millennials are the most numerous generation in the country, with an estimated population of 83.1 million. Yet they have the lowest voter turnout of any age group, according to a Feb. 2016 NPR article, “The 10 States Where Millennial Could Sway The Election” by Asma Khalid.

 But New Era Colorado has a simple mission statement: engage young voters in fun ways for better turn out. And its efforts may be working considering that Colorado’s young voter turnout is among the top in the nation.

Khalid states, “Colorado has the three laws that are most ‘helpful’ to youth voter turnout — same-day registration (enacted in 2013), preregistration for potential voters below 18 (enacted in 2013) and online registration (2009).”

 New Era Colorado’s latest video is helping, too. Obiwole says, “A lot of us don’t watch TV anymore so even a TV commercial won’t be effective with this generation. A video that you know your friends have seen and you’re both thinking about at the same time and having conversations about is the best way for it to spread.”

 Since the video went public in early September, it has garnered more than 434,000 views and hundreds of shares on Facebook. New Era Colorado hopes to reach young voters and inspire them to change their hearts and minds and take action.

Steven Fenberg, strategic advisor and founder of New Era Colorado said, “Our hope is that it spreads organically and that its something that people want to share because it embodies a feeling that they have.”

New Era Colorado uses social media as only one of its outreach tools. Peer-to-peer outreach is an important part of their voter registration engagement model, and young volunteers take to the streets to ask people if they’ve registered to vote. New Era Colorado also hold events like non-traditional candidate debates, which include candidates fielding questions from YouTube, dancing and using props to answer questions.

“Not everyone wants to go to a candidate debate at the local library. If it’s a concert venue and there’s drinks, and all your friends are there, and the program itself is kind of entertaining that’s where we think the magic happens.” Fenberg said.

Executive Director Lizzy Stephan agrees. “It’s really important to create a diverse surround sound of information and events to reach young voters. This election, we’re going to register up to 50,000 young people to vote, and we stay with them until they cast their ballot.” Stephan adds, “We’re thrilled that “This is Why We Vote” reached so many people.”

This isn’t the first time an online video from New Era Colorado made a difference. In September 2013, The Huffington Post ran an article about New Era’s crowd funding campaign to raise money in support of Boulder municipalization efforts. After the media site Upworthy.com posted a New Era video under the headline: “A Bunch of Young Geniuses Just Made AA Corrupt Corporation Freak Out Big Time.”, the crowd funding effort received more than $80,000 in donations from across the country, successfully doubling its initial request. The video outlined why New Era backed municipalization and cast the election as a battle against Xcel.

Fenberg mentions his favorite part of the video. “One of the lines is ‘protest can co-exist with process.’  Young people participate, in very large numbers at the ballot box but they also are leaders. At the end of the day, movements like Black Lives Matter and Keystone are run, led and inspired by young people. We fully believe it’s important to engage in both manners in order to create change in the political culture in America.”

Transcription:

Lead In: NPR Reports that Millennials are the largest generation in the country. With an estimated population of 83.1 million, they now outnumber baby boomers. But, in the last election, they had the lowest voter turnout of any age group, nationwide. Colorado’s youth demographic is the fastest-growing age group in the state, and youth voter turnout has been rising. CU Boulder’s Shannon Latham has the story of one strategic move New Era Colorado; a Denver based non-partisan, non-profit organization used recently to engage young voters.

Toluwa: Uh, my name is Toluwa and I will be your host for the night

(audience claps)

Shannon: Toluwanimi Obiwole is Denver’s first Youth Poet Laureate.

She is a busy 22-year-old, balancing volunteer work, hosting an open mic at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore, and starring in New Era Colorado’s latest voter outreach campaign.

Audio from “This is Why We Vote”: They say sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul. This is why we vote.

Shannon: A two and a half minute short video titled “This is Why We Vote, “that’s currently making the rounds on Facebook. Although Obiwole’s own political views may be different from her peers, she feels that she can contribute her poetry and presence to a video that encourages young voters to pay attention to local issues.

Toluwa: I kind of felt like I had to almost tone it down for my audience because I knew it would be probably a lot of Millennials who probably aren’t um super involved so a way to get them you know excited about voting on the issues rather than the candidates.

[Phone rings]

Stephen Fenberg: Hello.

Shannon: In a phone interview, Steven Fenberg, New Era Colorado’s strategic advisor talked about his upcoming plans.

Steve: I actually founded the organization about 10 years ago. And then, I’ve been the Executive Director up until a couple of months ago and I’ve started transitioning out because I’m moving on to uh, run for state senate.

Shannon: The importance of reaching Millennials through a medium they can relate to was not lost on Fenberg.

Steve: It’s literally how they receive news and information but it’s also how they communicate and share ideas and um, express themselves artistically, politically, and whether its their original content or not just sharing something that is sort of like an expression.

Shannon: Obiwole was drawn to the project because of her concern for the current distress the nation is facing.

Toluwa: It’s come to the point where, you know, in the springtime, a lake that is completely iced over. Like, the minute the fish begin to move the minute, like you know, all of the things underneath the ice begin to rumble, like, of course the surface is going to crack. And so, we’re at that point where you really cannot keep the voice of the majority of the people in this country silent or quiet anymore.

Shannon: In the video, Obiwole mentions revolution. However, the message of working together is pervasive throughout.

Audio from Video: “..because we know that protest can co-exist with process.”

Steven: The really important message we want to get across is that the feeling is that, is that voting doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with protest or with direct action or with art when it comes to creating change. It can be a supplement and it’s important to be a supplement.

Shannon: As the Youth Poet Laureate, part of Obiwole’s job is to engage in “youth-oriented civic activities”, and the New Era Colorado video is just one of the many art and poetry related projects she has already accomplished in her year’s term.

For her, poetry is a part of everyday activities as well as an important facet of social engagement.

Toluwa: We’re probably people who learn through both audio and visual like we cant just sit there and look at legal jargon and look at a ballot and care about voting but if its something that comes to life that matters to us, I think that’s the role that art really plays is making it matter.

Toluwa in bookstore: Poetry is good!

Audience: All the time!

Tolua: And all the time?

Audience: Poetry is good!

From Boulder, Colorado. I’m Shannon Latham.

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