Citizen University announces winners of “Joy of Voting” initiative supported by Knight Foundation

Miami; St.Paul, Minn.; Wichita, Kan. to implement new projects, advance lessons in civic engagement for U.S. cities

MIAMI – October 19, 2017 – Parades, street theater, open-air debates, festivals: These were once part of America’s culture of voting, and Citizen University aims to revive them. Citizen University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are thrilled to announce the winners of an open call for projects that will generate creative celebrations and joyful public rituals that encourage people to vote. 

Winners are being announced in Miami; Wichita, Kansas and St. Paul Minnesota. Projects selected in Akron, Ohio; West Palm Beach, Florida; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Charlotte, North Carolina will focus on elections set for November 2018. 

With $200,000 from Knight Foundation, Seattle nonprofit Citizen University is partnering with activists, artists, organizers and everyday citizens to launch initiatives in these seven cities across the country to generate localized, action-oriented projects that foster a stronger culture of voting.

“Ensuring people come out to vote is essential to building a stronger democracy,” said George Abbott, Knight Foundation director for community and national initiatives. “The Joy of Voting is a simple idea that seeks to change the culture around voting and make it more fun. Driven by citizens, for citizens it pushes people to get involved in their community in an organic and fun way.”

Through the Joy of Voting project, Citizen University aims to address a growing trend of lower voter turnout in local elections. The project kicks off this year with initiatives in Miami, St. Paul and Wichita, and will continue in 2018 in Akron, West Palm Beach, Grand Forks and Charlotte.

The Joy of Voting project derives its vision from an article in The Atlantic written by Citizen University founder and CEO Eric Liu, in which he asserts that it’s possible to revive 18th and 19th century practices of raucous, participatory activity and pageantry around elections.

“Instead of ‘eat your vegetables’ or ‘do your duty,’ voting should feel more like ‘join the club,’” said Liu. “Or better yet, ‘join the party.’”


Winning organizations in Miami include Comic Cure, Miami Dade College’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy, Engage Miami, The Plantain and the New Florida Majority Education Fund.

The projects range from Comic Cure’s late-night entertainment show hosted by Billy Corben, to a satirical video created by The Plantain. The New Florida Majority and Engage Miami will host several separate, get-out-the-vote themed parties in neighborhoods around the city, and local residents will discover unique, personalized yard signs created by MDC students on lawns around town.


In Wichita, the Joy of Voting winners are the League of Creative Interventionists, Episcopal Social Services, KMUW, Sheenika Medard’s First Gen Woes program, and Sara Dixon with colleague Stephanie Huff.

The projects in Wichita include a pop-up Voting Celebration Station hosted by the League of Creative Interventionists, ESS’ Soapbox Series that provides a literal platform for voters and public officials to share their thoughts, and a spoken word competition for high school students led by nationally recognized spoken word artist Sheenika Medard. Sara Dixon, in collaboration with videographer Stephanie Huff, will host Canine Candidates, a mock election with dogs as candidates, and videos that address the issues that Wichita dogs face. At all these events, look for a series of unique ‘VoteICT’ shirts and wearable stickers designed by local artists for KMUW’s initiative.


St. Paul’s winning organizations include Next in Nonprofits, The Theatre of Public Policy, Concordia University of St. Paul, Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop, and Erika Herrmann of Arty Bark Park in collaboration with Shari Aronson and Chris Griffith. Citizen University is receiving support in St. Paul from The Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul.

The Theatre of Public Policy will host a mayoral forum on November 3 featuring all the leading candidates in this year’s race, with all their answers brought to life through live unscripted improv comedy. Other projects will take place in varied locations around town, as Monkeybear’s Harmolodic Workshop spreads the word about local elections with handcrafted puppets, and Herrmann works with Aronson and Griffith of Z Puppets Rosenschnoz to get the vote out among St. Paul citizens through a creative canine campaign. Concordia University students will be found at light rail stations encouraging transit passengers to fill in a custom “I vote because … ” banner while they wait to board. Finally, Next in Nonprofits will have real soapboxes at every polling place in the city on Election Day, inviting voters to climb aboard and voice their ideas.


Each project receives $3,600 to complete the work. Already underway, the diverse group of winners will implement their initiatives in advance of the municipal elections taking place on November 7, 2017. The 15 projects in Miami, St. Paul and Wichita will serve as models for what a vibrant, participatory culture of voting could look like.

“During last year’s election cycle, we saw such hunger and excitement around these creative, fun in-person activities. With just a little bit (of) inspiration, it was thrilling to see what projects everyone came up with,” said Ben Phillips, senior program officer at Citizen University and director of the Joy of Voting project. “We can’t wait to see what sort of creativity is unleashed around the local elections this year.”

Citizen University piloted the program in four cities for the November 2016 general election. This year, the projects move out of the federal domain to focus on mayoral and municipal elections taking place in each city. The local focus will amplify a key component of the Joy of Voting program: to unite neighbors around claiming power within their communities.

“Joy of Voting projects bridge the critical gap between the right to vote and the desire to vote,” said Sara Yousuf, founder and board member at Engage Miami. “These projects do the critical work of reminding people of the excitement and power that comes with taking part in the civic process.”

“Wichita Public Radio is thrilled to participate for a second year in the Joy of Voting initiative,” said Sarah Jane Crespo, director of community engagement for KMUW. “The energy it brought to our area last year was remarkable, and because civic engagement continues to be critical for healthy communities, we hope that it will continue to invigorate Wichita in this off year.”

“Springboard is delighted to partner on the Joy of Voting project,” said Carl Atiya Swanson, associate director at Springboard for the Arts. “Art and artists continually create experiences that bring people together and form moments of connection, curiosity and joy. Bringing that power and attention to civic engagement and the importance of voting deepens the role art plays in our lives.”

Visit for more details on the events and activities in Miami, St. Paul and Wichita. 

Joy of Voting will continue in 2018 when it moves to four other cities around the country hosting local and midterm elections: Akron, West Palm Beach, Grand Forks and Charlotte. Check back here next year for information on getting involved in these four cities.

Support for Citizen University forms one part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to invest in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. The foundation believes that designing places to achieve these goals is crucial to city success.

For more information on Citizen University, visit

About Citizen University

Citizen University is a national nonprofit based in Seattle that promotes and teaches the art of powerful citizenship. In addition to the Joy of Voting, programs and initiatives include the Civic Collaboratory, a civic leadership network; Sworn-Again America, a project on civic rituals; the Citizen University National Conference; and programs and resources to teach civic power. For more, visit

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit


Ben Phillips, Senior Program Manager, Citizen University, 360-305-8568, [email protected]

Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2646, [email protected]

Photo: Citizen University CEO Eric Liu at the Annual National Conference in Seattle March 18-19, 2016. Photo by  Alabastro Photography.