By Nina Tabios
When Rachel Sampayan was in high school, she distinctly remembers watching the 2017 presidential inauguration in class. At the time, she and her classmates were just learning about politics and, though she was too young to cast a ballot, Sampayan understood the significance of having your voice heard.
“We were watching it live and we were just like, ‘Wow,’” Sampayan said from her home in Tracy, California. “Knowing what was going on and having our own thoughts on politics, I felt like if we were old enough to vote things might’ve gone differently.”
Now four years later, Sampayan, a student at the Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion (FSH), will be heading to the polls for the first time in the 2020 General Election. The call to vote is louder than ever this year—young people especially hold political power that could sway the outcome, prompting many nonprofit organizations, brands, and even celebrities to use blogs and social media to advocate in order to help increase voter turnout.
One campaign in particular taps into art as a way to deliver a powerful message. Recently, Kenneth Cole announced the “Make the Statement” campaign and invited design students, recent graduates, and alumni to create a piece of artwork to catch their customers’ attention on Instagram. The contest, which would select the top 24 entries out of 80 accepted submissions and share them on Kenneth Cole’s Instagram, caught the eye of FSH Assistant Director of Textiles Rhona MacKenzie, who decided it would be an appropriate—and timely—project for one of her summer classes.
“Usually we have students do competitions because it can be a boost of confidence, it’s exposure, and it could be good for their résumé,” MacKenzie said. “But this felt important and I think it actually helps because it’s making people more conscious that voting does matter and it’s right around the corner.”
In early August, three of MacKenzie’s students were selected among the top entries. Each contestant had to incorporate one of the required phrases, “If You Don’t Vote, We Don’t Exist,” “You Vote, We Exist,” and “Vote to Exist” into their designs. It inspired an inclusive approach: Sampayan, a fourth-year B.F.A. textiles student, wanted her design to represent the different shades of people of color while also speaking to the deaf community. Senior fashion design student Janelle Goolsby strived to create an image with the words that spoke to Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and vitiligo communities.
“I think art is allowing people to speak in ways we were unable to before,” said Goolsby, who lives in Oakland. “It’s putting things in a different perspective, it’s a gamechanger. I think art is its own movement and has been throughout these past six months, and I feel like a lot of people are just trying to find a way to stay afloat and stay positive.”
For B.F.A. textile design student Krithika Sengottaiyan, voting and the message of “Vote to Exist” has a different meaning as an international student. Painting the United States in different colors is representative of its diversity, bringing to light how voting is a privilege that isn’t afforded to everyone.
“I go to this school in this country and I’m trying to build a future for myself here, but I don’t get to vote, I don’t have a voice,” said Sengottaiyan, who moved to San Francisco from India. “As much as it affects America, I feel like American elections affect every place on the globe. If you have the opportunity to vote and put your opinion out there you need to exercise the right that you’re given [because] there are so many people in this country who cannot.”
Contests and competitions are typically meant as an early showing to industry, but this Kenneth Cole campaign was about something much bigger. Between now and Nov. 3, Kenneth Cole will continue to share student submissions on social media to inspire the next generation to make their vote count.
“The younger generation is going to be affected the most by the elections that are going to come through because it is the future we are creating,” Sengottaiyan said. “And if you have that option, if you can vote, why would you not?”
“We really do have a voice and it’s going to start with our generation,” Goolsby said. “We are next in line and we have the ability to shape our future. What happens now is what’s going to affect us later. Stay aware and stay true to your opinion. Just make sure to vote.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article included a misspelling of Krithika Sengottaiyan’s last name and listed the incorrect title for FSH Assistant Director of Textiles Rhona MacKenzie. We apologize for these errors.