2006 Election Post Mortem Part II - Culture Matters

Crossposted at Future Majority

As I noted in my first post-mortem piece, my plan for getting "the kids" to the polls centered around work at concerts and on campus. In my second in a series of post-mortem pieces I'll look specifically at the concerts we worked, including an introduction to Sean Agnew and R5 Productions, who made this work possible, and helped ensure it was a success.

Sean Agnew & R5 Productions

As you know by now, much of my outreach centered around working at concerts thrown by Philly's #1 independent promotions company- Sean Agnew's R5 Productions. Now, for those who don't know, or at least know of, Sean, he is, to use the scientific term, "The Man".  Sean has single-handedly kept the Philadelphia independent music scene fresh and available to kids of all ages, while going up against the two horrendous monopolies that dominate American concerts and events: Clear Channel (whose concert division has recently been "spun off" into Live Nation) & Ticketmaster. If you want an idea about what Sean does, and who he has to go up against, check out this Harper's Magazine cover story that looks at Sean and his much larger competitors, or just head to the First Unitarian Church (22nd and Chestnut), the Starlight Ballroom (9th & Spring Garden), or Johnny Brenda's (Girard & Fairmount) and check out one of the extremely well attended and almost always entertaining shows that R5 throws! He also recently had a stalker blog dedicated to spotting him, which I'm just assuming means that he is hot shit, and he shares Ed Rendell's love for politics and the Eagles (though I don't think he share's Ed's love affair with fast/junk food or yelling at little league umpires- which is my earliest memory of the Gov). And while Sean is definitely not the type of guy who most people would think of as political, and definitely not someone who politicians might look to for help and or advice, he is very passionate about politics and is exactly the type of cultural community leader whom democrats should be looking to work with. Here's Sean's current myspace picture:

Sean & Ed Agree! The Eagles should be 8-1!!!

I met Sean during the Presidential campaign of 2004, which you can read about in my thesis section Culture in Need of a Home, an Idea is Born, if you are so inclined. And, as some of you may know, I have been working with Sean since 2005 to try and build a permanent space for R5 which can support sustainable political activism and provide a home/working space for political, cultural, and civic non-profits (maybe some for-profits as well). The project was called 8th Street, but that location, which as you might guess is on 8th Street, is no longer a possibility for us and so if/when we get started we'll have to choose a new name. But at anyrate, as the summer months slipped by, and as it became apparent that I was not going to be able to get everything together before the election, I decided that I would try and make the political side of the project happen, which, as I noted in my first piece, Ray & Jen helped make it into a reality.

What I didn't mention fully in my first piece is why culturally bound political activism is so important, especially when it comes to youth outreach and engagement. If you're interested you can read a letter that I helped to write that explains why it is so important to bring together politics and culture under a single roof here: Keys to a Future Majority: Building a Model for Sustainable Progressive Activism. My colleague Mike Connery has also written some great pieces on this connection, the best of which is his two part Living Liberally: Reforming Democratic "Youth" Programs (part 2 is here).

R5 Productions Concert Starlight Ballroom
This is what the future majority looks like. A small part of the crowd at an R5 Productions Concert at the Starlight Ballroom.

Connecting culture and politics is important for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is important to realize that everything that we do is political. One problem we face in America is that people on the left tend to think of politics simply as voting and such, when in reality the cultural and social choices that we make and the spaces that we frequent, all carry a political component. The Right in this nation is very adept at connecting the two in the minds of their constituents--nobody doubts that the NRA and Conservative Evangelical Churches are political and social/cultural spaces--but on the left politics is largely seen as something separate from our daily lives and it is kept out of our social/cultural spaces. But lets be real; how many right-wingers would you expect to find at an underground rap, indie rock, or Suicide Burlesque shows? And yet the kids at these shows (and young people in general) largely don't pay attention to politics or identify with any political party, group, or movement.
Philly Against Santorum + R5 Productions = Santorum Nomoreum
Philly Against Santorum + R5 Productions = Santorum NoMoreUm. Katie from the Temple College Dems works the PAS table at the Starlight.

By teaming up with the city's cultural leaders and creating a presence within the venue, we were able to make this connection in kids minds and gave us credibility, both in the shows and when we did outreach on the street. While most kids I spoke to had never heard of Rick Santorum, let alone PAS, a good majority of them not only knew what R5 was, but were big fans and more often than not frequent concert goers. So, when I would walk up to someone my age or younger and ask them if they were going to vote, most would simply snicker at me at first. When I asked these kids if they knew R5, and if they'd be interested in volunteering at a show (and thus seeing it for free) some would at least sign up for our e-mail list, and most would be a lot more receptive to my messages about the importance of voting and the insanity of our soon-to-be former Senator.

And while I doubt that most kids whom we signed up will ever be very politically active, we still need to, and did, try to broaden the appeal of politics and political activities by giving people an easy way to get involved. Most people will not start with harder and more pain-in-the-ass aspects of campaigning, such as my two least favorite political activities--Canvassing and Phone Banking--but by creating easy ways to get involved we increase the chances that those kids might be willing to do the less fun work of politics in the future. As Mike notes in his first piece:

If we want to build a progressive majority, our coalition cannot be composed solely of folks who drink the Kool Aid. We need to tailor our activities so we can involve the greatest amount of people, and use this larger pool to gradually move people up a ladder of participation that gets increasingly political in nature the higher up you get. This should be the goal of "youth outreach" programs, and this idea should be the basis for every ground campaign and recruitment program geared towards younger voters. The rub here is that we can't force these people to conform to our world-view. 99.9% of them will never be as politicized as we'd like them to be. So in order to succeed, we've got to adapt our own assumptions and ideas into their worldview. This was the realization that made Music for America so successful:

If you want to get apolitical youth involved in politics, you have to make political participation a cultural phenomenon.

*For the record, Music for America is not the only organization that actively connects politics with culture and social settings, my good friends over at Cosmopolity (soon to be known as Living Liberally), whom I worked with closely before leaving NYC, are also pioneers in this area. Most of you probably know Cosmopolity's first and most wide spread program--Drinking Liberally-- but there is also Laughing Liberally (which we have to bring to Philly sometime soon!), Screening Liberally, Reading Liberally, and even Swinging Liberally (a Liberal softball team- get your mind out of the gutter!!!)*

Katie works the crowd for PAS at an R5 show!Anyway, I designed my youth outreach program with all of this in mind, and starting in late September we began working at R5's many concerts (there were over 30 shows in October alone). At each show we got a few volunteers in for free. These volunteers were recruited from Music for America, whom we partnered with, from the Temple College Dems, from PAS' e-mail list, and from people whom we signed up or who were our MySpace friends (in one of the next post mortems I'll discuss how I used social networking sites). These volunteers would show up at the venue, help us to setup the table, and then by working the lines before the show and the table inside the venue, they registered voters (before the deadline), talked to them about politics and the election (including simply reminding people that an election was coming up), and they tried to help them make the connections between the cultural/social choices they make and politics. Probably the most important thing that we did was to simply to ask every single person whom we could talk to vote, which I would guess would be anywhere from 50-75% of a show's attendees (maybe more or less depending on the size of the show and the numbers of volunteers). We also hand out PAS stickers and literature, Music For America buttons, stickers and issue cards, posters from the Partisan Project (which are the most popular items we give away by far), candy, CDs, and any other items we could get our hands on. I'll devote another section of my post mortem to the materials we used, which were essential to our success at shows.

We also tried to get kids to sign up on our e-mail/contact list, though this was a lot harder than I expected. I thought I'd be able to sign up about 10% of the audience at Sean's shows, while at most shows we were lucky to get 5%. I guess people don't like giving out their e-mails to people whom they don't know working on campaigns they've never heard of. While this didn't have much effect on our abilities to work at the shows, it does matter when it comes to donors and "proving" that your outreach is successful. As someone who believes firmly in metrics of success as part of a political campaign this was, to put it mildly, frustrating. But while we don't have firm numbers of people we contacted, or for measuring purposes their full contact info, we worked at about 35 shows over the month-and-a-half that the program was active (from 9/29-11/06). If Sean's past averages held for this period (he averaged 410 people per show in 2005) that means that we were at shows with over 14,000 people at them and (to put the number at the far low end) got to have a face-to-face interaction regarding the election with at least 5,000 young people (the actual number is probably more in the 7-9,000 range).

Why yes, I am registering to vote!
Why yes, I am registering to vote!

And as you look at these numbers keep something else in mind. While Philadelphians Against Santorum was specifically focused on getting out the vote within the city limits, this program had effects both within the city limits as well as in the suburbs, where as you may know by now the youth vote decided at least one congressional race (though we don't have firm data yet, it appears that one of my favorite Fighting Dems, Pat Murphy, owes his race largely to the youngsters). In my opinion, though it was not the mission of PAS, this is when Philly is at its strongest: as the cultural and economic hub of the region we absolutely can and must have a reach beyond the city's borders. Hopefully as it becomes clear that the work that PAS did in the city (as well as the few other groups that actually did field work in the city, and I do mean few) had a spillover effect into the burbs, Philadephia will start to take its rightful place, once again, as the keystone to Democratic success in the Eastern part of the Keystone State.

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