Through Art And Conversation, Burlington's Luis Calderin Hopes To Engage Young Voters

Jul 28, 2016

Much of the news coming out of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week has focused on the convention hall — the speeches, the crowds and the tension between Sen. Bernie Sanders' supporters and supporters of Hillary Clinton. But just outside the convention bubble, there's a different approach to political engagement underway.

A 15-minute walk from the Pennsylvania convention center is an energetic, art-filled space where Rock the Vote is hosting a pop-up art exhibition called Truth to Power.

Billed as a large-scale pop-up art exhibition, the installation centers around many of the issues that concern young people today: climate change, college debt, sexual assault and criminal justice.

One of the driving forces behind the exhibit is Luis Calderin, a Burlington resident and vice president of marketing and creative at Rock the Vote. Up until a few weeks ago, Calderin was the arts, culture and the youth vote manager for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Joseph Delappe's interactive series encourages participants to show support for the issues they care about by stamping paper money with different shaped stamps, each representing a different issue. From left to right, drones, sea level rising and police violence.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

The exhibit brings people together, "to have honest and interesting conversations about the issues that we're facing today in America and talking them out, and ultimately identifying the truths to these issues," Calderin explains, making his way slowly through the space.  "And then understanding that the power lies within us, the American voter, especially during this election cycle."

A DJ is stationed at the front of the exhibit, filling the space with music and keeping the energy high. Yet at the same time, the tension inspired by the art's heavy subject matter can quickly make for an emotional experience – an energy that is embraced, if not encouraged.

"Transfiguration" and "Transflag" by Peregrine Honig displayed as part of Rock the Vote's Truth to Power exhibit in Philadelphia.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

Artist Peregrine Honig's pieces, "Transfiguration" and "Transflag" — a bleached American flag and rainbow flag —  are mounted side-by-side on the wall of the space.

"What if in America we didn't see anyone in terms of gender? What if everyone was just considered a person?" poses Calderin. "What if a person is measured by their spirit? A beautiful white light, that we all have as spiritual beings having a human experience. Right?"

"Let's take all these colors out. Let's take boundaries out. Let's take countries and land lines out and remember that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet for a finite amount of time," he added.

Calderin's mother brought his sister and him to live in Burlington in the 1980s, when Bernie Sanders was mayor of the city. Calderin says Sanders' children were some of his "first and earliest and best friends," after moving to the area.

Prior to getting involved with the campaign, Calderin, who still lives in Burlington with his wife and two children, worked in marketing at Burton Snowboards. He says the Vermont senator's possible presidential run was a frequent topic of discussion with Sanders' stepson Dave Driscoll, who also works at Burton.

"I asked a million questions like, 'Who's going to do the new poster?' or 'What's the music going to be like?'" he explains. "And when I left Burton, [Driscoll] created an opportunity for me to sit down with Bernie and Jane and [share] what my thoughts were on what I could do for the campaign. And they let me do it."

"Bernie's mandate was 'don't make it about me, make it all about the issues,'" Calderin adds. He became the director of arts, culture and the youth vote for Sanders' campaign, serving until just after the California primary in June.

"Going across this country and seeing so many young people and seeing the passion and the energy and the enthusiasm for democracy was really, really moving ... I've dedicated myself to helping us see it all the way through." — Luis Calderin, VP of Marketing and Creative at Rock the Vote

"Going across this country and seeing so many young people and seeing the passion and the energy and the enthusiasm for democracy was really, really moving," Calderin says. "I swore that I would do everything I could to continue to keep that energy and momentum and that movement, our movement. I've dedicated myself to helping us see it all the way through. So it's been an honor to be part of Rock the Vote."

Calderin, 42, credits Rock the Vote for getting him registered to vote as a teenager and engaging him in the political process.

"Ironically enough, it was Rock the Vote in City Hall Park, the summer of 1992," Calderin explains. "They had a table in City Hall Park. There were two girls that were from UVM. They said, 'Hey come over here, are you registered to vote?' I didn’t even know what that meant. And then I went over there, they signed me up.

"And it's beautiful how it's been able to come around full circle and now I'm here and have the opportunity to bring more people into the political process."

Michael D'Antuono's "The Talk" on display as part of the Truth to Power exhibit in Philadelphia this week.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

Artist Michael D'Antuono's "The Talk" — part of a series of three pieces — shows parents sitting across from their son. In the background, a TV shows the images of a cop and a young boy, who looks just like the one sitting on the couch. Across the bottom of the screen it reads, "No Indictment In Police Shooting Of Unarmed Yo[uth]."

"This is a conversation that is happening every day. This is happening to us, every day," Calderin says of the artwork. "I'm a person of color. I'm a father, I have a 16-year-old son ... His mother and I just bought him a used Volvo as his first car. Why did I buy him a used Volvo? Because they're safe.

"We sat down. I said, 'Son, I love you. This is a big responsibility. I'm so scared to let you go out in the world and drive, but I have to. Please, promise me that you won't drink and drive. Please, promise me that you'll wear your seat belt. Please, promise me that you won't get crazy in the car.' This is a conversation that all fathers have with their sons when they turn 16.

"But because I'm a person of color, and my son comes from me and looks different, I have to also have the conversation today that says, 'Son, also if and when you get pulled over by the police, please know that no matter what, you're going to be OK. I'm going to get you out. I just need you to know that so that you know that you're not in any trouble with me. So that you don't lose your composure. So that you don't get scared and fumble around and make that cop nervous. Keep your hands on the steering wheel so that he is less likely to lose his mind and shoot you and kill you.'

"That's a conversation that, as a father, you have to have in America today with your 16-year-old son when he gets his first car," Calderin says.

A closer look at Michael D'Antuono's "The Talk" shows that the edges are wrapped in tape printed with now-famous names.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

Around the edges of Michael D'Antuono's "The Talk" are names made famous by the individuals' final moments, including Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

"I don't even want to see those names. I don't even see those names because that name could easily be my son," Calderin says. "And I don't, I can't, I'm not prepared to even take that as a thought. So these are the issues, these are the issues that we're facing as Americans today. These are real issues."

The artist, Michael D'Antuono, happened to be sitting nearby, listening as Calderin explained the emotions the piece evoked in him. D'Antuono says the volume of police shooting videos woke him up to the national reality.

"As an old white man, I assumed that racism was basically over in this country. But through all the videos of the police shootings trying to be swept under the rug, that woke me from my ignorance, the comfort of my ignorance," D'Antuono says. "And I want to do the same with as many other white people, to get them to see... to elicit empathy. To put yourself in someone else's shoes, how would you feel if you had to give your child that talk?"

Calderin says that it's a topic that comes up with his children often.

"So many conversations with my kids around the dinner table about the moments where they're like, 'The whole country seems like it's about to explode.' And I have to stop and say, 'Kids, this is what's going on. [I've] got to make you aware of this so you know what's happening here.' Whether it be police violence, whether it be the Sandy Hook."

"It's beyond crazy," he adds.

D'Antuono, the artist, asks Calderin how it feels to bear that burden.

"I'm the first person in my family born in this country. My parents are from Cuba ... I'm from Miami, I moved to Vermont. I grew up in a beautiful, pretty safe place. I got the opportunity and the privilege and the honor to be able to work for the [Sanders' campaign] and [despite] all those accolades, when I get pulled over, it's terrifying." — Luis Calderon

"It makes me feel -- as a person of color in the United States -- alienated, by myself, in my own country. A country that I love. A country that I've served for," Calderin says. "I'm the first person in my family born in this country. My parents are from Cuba ... I'm from Miami, I moved to Vermont. I grew up in a beautiful, pretty safe place. I got the opportunity and the privilege and the honor to be able to work for the [Sanders' campaign] and [despite] all those accolades, when I get pulled over, it's terrifying," Calderin says.

During the campaign, after Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, Calderin says he and another campaign staffer were driving back to Vermont when they stopped for speeding.

"White kid, driving his car — I'm sleeping, he's speeding. We get pulled over," Calderin explains. "And normally the cop is on the [driver's side]. I'm looking at the left side to see if he's going to show up and all of a sudden the cop opens the door on the [passenger' side]... and is half an inch from my face yelling at us. In New Hampshire. And the first thing that goes in my mind is, this stuff," Calderin says gesturing to D'Antuono's series of paintings.

"Like, 'please don't lose your mind, I don't want to end up dead,'" he says. They ended up getting off with a ticket but Calderin adds, "Here I am, a guy who's working on a presidential campaign. I just won New Hampshire and in one second, none of that [expletive] matters, man."

"...and counting" is an installation by the artist gilf!. The 613 toe tags represent individuals killed by police in 2016. The artist left some tags blank, to account for deaths between the time the creation of the piece and the installation of the show.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

"These are issues that aren't necessarily at the presidential level. These are actually in fact issues that are at a local level," Calderin says.

"So what we're trying to do here with this installation and our campaign, the Rock the Vote Truth to Power campaign, is to help educate young people and express to them how important it is that they A, register to vote, and then B, show up to vote," he says. "But not just at the presidential [election] when all eyes are on it. We need you beyond that. We need you to vote for your school board. We need you to vote at a state level, at the midterm level.

"As you know – as we all know now, because of the work that my former boss Sen. Bernie Sanders of the great state of Vermont did – he helped young people bring these issues to the forefront and talk about them and learn about the entire arc way of voting. That is not just one person that is going to miraculously cure all our problems. That we, the people, need to show up and do our job, which is vote people in or out of office."

The Truth to Power exhibit is a powerful experience, encouraging reflection and engagement — but it's also temporary, up only for the DNC. When asked which of the pieces he'd like to bring home to Vermont to share that experience, Calderin says one piece comes to mind.

The 90-foot Keith Haring hanging outside Rock the Vote's Truth to Power event.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR

"My absolute dream would be to take the 90-foot Keith Haring that is outside of our building. I mean this building that we're in is like 12 floors, 12 plus floors, and I don't know if we do that in Vermont," Calderin jokes. "It is a beautiful painting that the late great Keith Haring made with his group that he worked with called CityKids.

"It's a painting of the Statue of Liberty. And Keith Haring is one of my favorite artists of all time. When I was young, that was the first sort of street artist that I ever got exposed to and I wish that I could bring that home," he says. "I wish that I had a building tall enough to display that in Burlington and I hope that maybe we do someday [and are] able to bring that to Vermont and share this piece."

"It has not been in North America since the early '80s. It was here, and then it was shipped to Paris where it lived on display for a little while, then it was packed up and sat in a crate" since then, Calderin says. "So this piece only exists right now and it will go back into a box and go away."

The Truth to Power campaign will be traveling around the country for the rest of the election cycle, "to register as many young people to vote and keep them engaged in the political process," Calderin explains.

"These young people that came out in support of Bernie, I know that the senator wants them to stay engaged and he has expressed that. And so we hope that young people show up in November to get a new president."

Our reporting from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions is supported in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.