By Melissa Young, AsAmNews Intern
With the Georgia Senate runoff elections coming up Jan. 5, political organizers have been working to mobilize Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters in the state. Some of the busiest advocates for AAPI voter participation in Georgia aren’t even old enough to vote yet.
Asian American high school students in metro Atlanta are encouraging voter participation in their communities by creating public artwork at local Asian American businesses such as boba tea shops.
Akshadha Lagisetti, a high school senior in Atlanta, came up with the idea ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Lagisetti is co-director of civic and creative engagement at Asian Youth for Civic Engagement (AYCE), a national youth organization that aims to increase AAPI voter turnout. She envisioned the murals as a response to the historically low voter participation rates among Asian Americans.
To make this idea happen, Lagisetti reached out to the Atlanta chapter of Student Art Spaces, a youth-run art collective. They obtainted the support of the Student Art Spaces national organization as well as from nonprofit Go Paint Love.
A team of predominantly Asian American youth recruited by AYCE and Student Art Spaces painted the murals at local businesses. These include Sri Krishna Vilas restaurant in Cumming, Kung Fu Tea in Buford, Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea in Doraville, Oolong Bubble Tea House in Kennesaw and Sankranti restaurant in Johns Creek.
Sheena Lai, a high school junior in Atlanta and co-founder of Student Art Spaces’ Atlanta chapter, told AsAmNews that using art for voter outreach can create a specific connection between the message and the viewer in a way that other types of outreach may not.
“For example, a message on a commercial saying to vote might not come through to you as much as if you go to a boba tea shop every week and you see the same message,” Lai said.
Lai also highlighted that many of the mural locations, such as boba tea shops, are geared toward younger Asian Americans.
The reception from the community toward the murals has been positive, with more and more businesses agreeing to have the volunteers paint at their locations. Some businesses have posted the murals to their social media accounts.
Lai said she was grateful that “Asian businesses were interested in portraying a positive message of increasing voter participation and allowing us to have the space to paint and advocate.”
“I feel happy that I could contribute positively to my community, and not just the space around me, but a specific niche,” Lai told AsAmNews. “And it grew to more than I could expect. I wasn’t expecting for us to be able to paint so many murals for many different businesses. At the same time, I’m really grateful for these businesses [for putting] faith in us to paint their business as a part of how they portray themselves to their customers.”
Due to the project’s continued success in metro Atlanta, AYCE has expanded the project beyond Georgia, working on voter activation art in Arizona, Tennessee, Illinois and Texas. AYCE and Student Art Spaces in Atlanta have also expanded to painting public art targeting voters in general, in addition to AAPI voters. They are currently working on murals at both Asian-specific and non-Asian-specific locations in metro Atlanta.
In addition to the mural project, AYCE volunteers have been working with the Asian American Advocacy Fund to phone bank and text bank for the Senate runoffs, and reaching out to other Asian American high schoolers to get involved.
Diane Chen, a high school junior and a chapter lead of AYCE’s Atlanta branch, said she first got involved in civic engagement by volunteering for the 2020 U.S. census. She is currently a field intern for Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign.
Chen told AsAmNews she thinks younger Asian Americans are participating more in civic engagement due in part to social media representation.
“I feel like in a lot of AAPI households, a lot of times the parents are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and I think sometimes they think they don’t have a voice in American politics,” Chen said.
“For my age group, with social media, when you see someone on Instagram who looks like you, who’s getting involved in politics, you think, ‘Oh I have a shot at this, I can get involved.’”
Chen also told AsAmNews that increased Asian American media visibility, as well as younger Asian Americans actually feeling American instead of only identifying with their ethnicity, can encourage civic engagement among AAPI youth. Targeting Asian hubs and businesses where there are many young Asian Americans contributes to increasing AAPI voter turnout, she said.
Chen is passionate about racial equity, women’s rights and immigration. She is motivated to advocate for civic engagement because she has the resources to do so.
“I can drive myself places, I have the Internet, I have my laptop. … I really have the platform to help out, especially as a junior in high school, I’m not really doing anything else,” Chen said. “It feels really good to be dedicating my time and energy to something bigger than myself.”
Like Chen, Lagisetti is no stranger to political engagement. She is the state communications director for March For Our Lives Georgia, and has held internships and fellowships with various political campaigns. She highlights gun violence, immigration and racism as issues that have galvanized her into political organizing during high school.
Although Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., there has not been much voter outreach toward Asian Americans, Lagisetti said. “The lack of attention toward this [Asian American voters] pushed me to go beyond the issues I usually cared about earlier during high school, to focus more on my identity there.”
Lagisetti thinks that Asian American youth are getting more involved in politics because of increased multiculturalism and AAPI media representation, as well as social media. Social media makes information more accessible, she said, and platforms like Tiktok provide a forum where Asian American youth discuss politics.
“I think that social media has definitely played a big role in getting Gen Z out and thinking more about activism and politics. … For Asian Gen Z, just multiculturalism, seeing ourselves more on TV and media and knowing we have different routes to doing what we want with our lives,” Lagisetti said.
Chen said AYCE is trying to get as many murals done in Georgia before the Jan. 5 run-off election date. The hope is that the murals inspire passersby to check their voter registration and make sure they go to the polls.
Beyond the Georgia Senate runoff election, Lagisetti told AsAmNews that AYCE plans to continue the public art activation project by creating Asian American- or social justice-themed murals at local businesses, community organizations and public spaces.
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