Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
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First-years in SoHE’s Political Textiles Seminar Answer Election Anxiety with Art & Design

The students' collaborative design featured a Wisconsin-shaped word cloud printed locally on canvas bags. Photo by Marina Moskowitz
The students’ collaborative design featured a Wisconsin-shaped word cloud printed locally on canvas bags. Photo by Marina Moskowitz.

With the U.S. general election looming especially large over the fall semester in swing state Wisconsin, the 16 students in Dr. Marina Moskowitz’s First-Year Interest Group (FIG) seminar didn’t have to look far for inspiration for their collective final project. After spending their semester in her course “The Fabric of American Politics: Textiles as Political Expressions” (DS 501), they were tasked with creating something of their own to promote voter interest and participation in this momentous election.

“This is by far one of my most engaging classes,” says Jada Young,* a student in the class currently interning as a Presidential Fellow with the Democratic National Committee. “We get to talk about current events while connecting them to past events, and we can really see how textiles are used to convey powerful and meaningful messages in politics.”

After several class discussions and breakout group exercises, the students decided they wanted to prioritize reaching their fellow students and young people with key facts about why their vote matters and how to vote. The result: an eye-catching canvas bag featuring a Wisconsin-shaped word cloud representing the diversity of voices in their own classroom, plus a QR code linking to more information. This week, the students printed 500 of their final design with a local printer and distributed the bags for free across campus, wearing masks and observing physical distancing. 

Elle Monfried,* another student in the class who helped lead distribution efforts for the project, was excited to see her fellow students’ shared energy around the election—a result, she guessed, of it being the first general election in which they were old enough to exercise their vote.

“When asking for bags, many went out of their way to say, ‘Is it okay if I take one even if I already voted?’, which was always the best thing to hear throughout the day because it showed … how excited and nerve-racking the upcoming election has made so many,” she says. “As a first time voter, I have found that voting myself won’t truly make a difference unless I encourage others to vote for what they believe is right for this country.”

This sense of camaraderie and cohesion is exactly what the FIG program is intended to help build among participants, both in the classroom with one another (even when virtual) and beyond, through the lessons and connections they make through the course material. Its built-in funding support also ensured the students wouldn’t have to charge their peers for the bags.

“The students did an amazing job of collaborating, and I was impressed with how engaged they were by contemporary politics and excited to share their passion with their peers,” says Dr. Marina Moskowitz, the course professor and SoHE’s Lynn and Gary Mecklenburg Chair in Textiles, Material Culture, and Design. “This class focuses on how design and material culture—especially textiles—are harnessed to express political beliefs. I challenged the students to apply those ideas to our present moment, and in this mostly virtual world in which we have all been living, they understood that it was all the more important to us to produce this ‘real’ thing together.”

Couldn’t snag a bag? You can still view the students’ online resources encouraging people to vote and explaining why it matters at teachingtextiles.net/vote2020.

*Jada Young plans to major in Pre-elementary Education with an emphasis in English, Elle Monfried in Retailing and Consumer Behavior and International Relations.