The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate will reopen to the public in limited fashion on Wednesday of this week after being closed since mid-March due to the pandemic.
Caroline Angel Burke, the Institute’s Vice President of Education, Visitor Experience & Collections, told the Reporter the institute is “excited” to reopen with a host of new safety precautions, and emphasized that its civics-based programming and education resources have crucial importance in today’s day and age.
“Things definitely have changed for us, as with any cultural institution,” said Burke. “Face coverings are mandatory for all visitors and we’re making sure they’re social distancing from other visitors in pods and making sure everything is fully sanitized after every tour so that everything is totally clean. We’ve, of course, had to limit our capacity, which means that some of our programming is changing, but I think that’s pretty much par for the course for most places.”
The institute will welcome pre-booked tour groups on Wednesdays only, with the scheduling online of up to 30 people at a time, who will then be subdivided into smaller groups.
“They’ll get guided tours and facilitated programs with our fantastic educators,” added Burke, “so it will be a nice conversation to have, and what better time to have that conversation? There is no more critical time for our nation than right now to learn about the importance of democracy and participation.”
The in-person experience at the EMK Institute will be slightly different, as touchscreens and tablets have been removed and exhibits altered to create a one-way flow for patrons. The popular “Today’s Vote” program, a facilitated role-play activity in which students take on the role of senators in the institute’s replica Senate Chamber, has been modified for 30 senators instead of the usual 100.
In the mock setup, students take on a variety of topics based on real legislation such as the DACA Dream Act, assault weapon bans, the Green New Deal, and the minimum wage.
Burke said the effect of the chamber setting and the context of the program often provoke an immediate change in students.
“When the doors open and they walk in, we start to address them as “Senator” because it’s important to kind of get into the role, and people really do transform. They start to see that being an elected official has a real responsibility, but it’s also possible for you to do that — it is for you.”
Recently, the institute launched a new website (todaysvote.org) with resources for educators around the country to conduct the Today’s Vote role-play programming in their own classrooms. The website launch is the culmination of a two-year project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that transforms services in house and makes them accessible across the country.
“We’re happy to be able to launch that this semester as well because it gives teachers who are not able to come here, and who need to do things at their own pace the flexibility to meet the needs of their students either in the classroom or at home or both, depending on where they’re at.”
The launch of the virtual Today’s Vote in the Classroom program is in tandem with another new website and series of resources called JustVote.org, aimed at providing a nonpartisan space where people can find out about registering to vote and the history of voting.
“Here at the Institute there’s a rich, deep set of resources that looks at historic and contemporary issues around voting,” explained Burke. “So things like gerrymandering and voter suppression and voter fraud – things that pop up in the news a lot – there’s a huge amount of history behind that, and it’s really important that voters understand that history, because it helps them not only to understand why it is so important to vote, but also to see how the patterns of expansion and suppression of voting rights is playing out today.”
That close attention to the voting procedure will, she said, hopefully boost awareness and provide a sense of urgency for participants in the month ahead of a pivotal election.
“We see it as even more critical now to be connecting with young people, first time voters, and voters that have felt disenfranchised in the past, and hopefully reinspire them to see that their voices do matter, and they do count,” said Burke, pointing to a city council race last year that saw Councillor Julia Mejia win by a single vote.
As the institute resumes its programming in both in-person and virtual formats, Burke said she feels an even greater sense of purpose surrounding civic education, one that affirms the aspirations of the institute’s namesake.
“When the senator was thinking about what his legacy would be, he saw that there was a lack of general civic engagement, and civics weren’t really seen as being important in school and STEM was all the rage,” she said.
“Yet he saw that civic participation was plummeting because people didn’t really understand why they had to do it, what they had to do, how they could get involved, how it really was their right to get involved. So when we opened the doors in 2015 we felt like, yes, we’re here to provide this amazing experience for kids. In the past five years things have changed so much, and the feeling has never been stronger that civics is so critical.”
Schools or groups interested in booking in-person or virtual tours or programming at the EMK Institute can do so at emkinstitute.org.