February 2023 Alumni Spotlight
This month we talk to MPA alumna Kim Sillen who is an artist and designer as well as Co-Founder of The Largest Generation: A Youth Voter Advocacy Project. She tells us about her artistic approach to government projects, political activism and advocacy, and her Marxe MPA experience.
How do you bridge the gap between seemingly disparate areas and use art and design in government work?
I’m lucky to have a rare position within NYC government as a graphic artist and illustrator, which lets me be creative, and I’m also grateful for a supervisor who is very much on the same page as me artistically. When I work on a project that is not inherently creative, I aim to infuse it with a dynamic, user-friendly energy to draw people in and make them excited about the initiative at hand. I’ve seen that the more you can speak to people directly through art and design in the messaging, the more they are likely to care about the policies or initiatives you’re putting out there, and that can really influence the way programs are embraced. This often centers on inclusivity— people are happy to metaphorically see themselves portrayed in novel, upbeat ways.
Tell us about your youth advocacy project, The Largest Generation.
My thesis for the Marxe program was on Youth Voter Advocacy, and the Largest Generation was born out of my research on the subject. (If you’re wondering about the name, Gen Z really is the largest and most diverse American generation ever, so their potential political clout is vast.) Right as I graduated, I was introduced to Bernadette Ludwig, a professor of Sociology and the director of the Civic Engagement program at Wagner College, and she really inspired me to run the internship.
Back when I became a voter in my college days, Rock the Vote and celebrity endorsements were the driving forces in trying to combat civic apathy among kids. I sensed that the calculus had very much changed since those years, and I found out my hunch was correct— young people today care deeply about issues and they clearly see the importance of voting. On the downside, though, at best it isn’t particularly easy for many of them to vote, and at worst, their efforts are actively thwarted in some states.
What I found through research was while young people don’t need coaxing to become interested in voting, they do need some support to help navigate through the web of disparate laws that every state has, which especially impact young people and often are not well publicized. I had the idea to make a toolkit of eye-catching infographics for each of the swing states that would help young people overcome those challenges. One hopeful thing I learned is that preregistration really increases youth voting, once a young person turns 18. In 2020, 49 states had some kind of preregistration law in effect, but very few states, including New York, did any outreach to teens about how to take advantage of those laws. (This is something I hope to someday help address on behalf of New York City.)
The internship facet of the project involved working with my co-founder Jeanne Heifetz to mentor 12 college students with the goal of creating collaborations through outreach to non-profits with voter advocacy missions and to colleges and universities in the swing states. The interns established relationships with several chapters of the League of Women Voters, NAACP, Common Cause, Latino Justice, New-Voters, Duke University, North Carolina A&T State University, University of South Florida, and several other organizations and academic institutions. They determined what the needs of each organization was, and together we devised specific campaigns for each, highlighting their particular state’s voting information and resources.
Many of our interns were incredibly bright, focused and amazingly adept at establishing these relationships by essentially cold-contacting most of them. They left me having the highest regard for Gen Z! And the bottom line is, we’re seeing a big surge in youth voting as more of Gen Z ages into legal adulthood.
What got you involved in community organizing and political activism? What are your most urgent messages?
I think fear and empathy really got me started organizing around ten years ago, when a teenage neighbor, Raphael Sadonte Ward, was shot and killed in our neighborhood. I didn’t know him, but I went to the vigil for him where his mother pleaded for everyone to join the battle for sensible gun laws. My son was young at the time, and I silently promised that I was going to get involved, because I never wanted to know this mother’s pain, and I didn’t want anyone else to experience it, either. Tragically, our reality is so far from what I had hoped the gun safety movement would bring, yet through several collaborative projects I started using that momentum as a springboard, I saw that when there is a will, you can get large numbers of people working feverishly together for a cause. There is still so much work to be done, though—we’ve barely scratched the surface. But again—this is where the power of the youth vote will come in.
Along with gun safety and voter advocacy, pushing for true environmental resiliency—rather than politically expedient green-washed policies—is a message that is extremely important to me. My time and passions have been largely devoted to this in the past few years. And we’re running out of time—you can’t get more urgent than that. Also critical is reproductive freedom. I haven’t personally spearheaded anything in this realm, but I still want to shout it from the rooftops. Again: youth voting can change the equation.
What was your MPA experience at the Marxe School like?
I’m so grateful for my time at the Marxe School. On one level, it was a little crazy, being a single parent with a full-time job and a child in high school who was getting ready to apply to college himself, but the program added so much depth to my understanding and to my capabilities. Whereas I felt like I had been operating in a silo previously apropos of my activism, I had such a broader base and such greater knowledge to be more effective by the time I was through. I had professors who were absolutely top-notch, and I actively appreciate what I got from them. I applied to the Marxe program exactly 25 years after I applied to my first graduate MFA program right out of college, and there’s nothing like a couple of decades to make you savor the kind of academic quality that the Marxe program offers!