Kennedy Institute for US Senate re-opens to student groups

Inside the replica Senate chamber in the EMK Institute on Columbia Point. Eric Haynes photo

Inside the US Senate Chamber, a group of people were poised to take their seats behind gleaming brown desks and discuss environmental policy. But they weren’t top government officials, they were students from a high school in Rhode Island, and they were ready to “debate” the Green New Deal bill inside a life-size replica of the Senate Chamber housed at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

After 18 months of providing strictly virtual educational programming during the pandemic, the Columbia Point facility has reopened its doors to in-person, registered groups and as part of that, introduce a new exhibit on voting rights.

“The right to vote is the foundational right as a citizen,” said Caroline Angel Burke, the vice president of education, visitor experience, and collections at the Kennedy Institute. “It is something that we shouldn’t take for granted.”

Located across from the UMass Boston campus, the Kennedy Institute, named after the legendary US senator from Massachusetts for close to a half-century, curates digital and in-person exhibits and provides educational programs about the US Senate.

The Institute’s new exhibit, called “Standing Up For Democracy,” traces the history of voting rights for Americans—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, to the present day. Throughout much of the country’s history, voting rights were limited largely on the basis of sex, race, age, economic status, and educational background, guaranteeing only the most privileged in society the right to vote.

But the fight for voting rights isn’t just a story from the nation's past. The exhibit examines the challenges today’s voters face, including the closing of locations, poll taxes, and the division of voting districts so that one political party is given an unfair advantage, a process known as gerrymandering. It’s an issue that is especially relevant to Boston, as its districts are currently being redrawn.

The exhibit also examines Kennedy’s role in the fights to expand voting rights.

He was such a proponent throughout his entire career in the Senate,” Angel Burke said. “He was involved intimately in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some have said it is the most important legislation of the 20th century.”

Along the walls of the exhibit, red, blue, and yellow graphics break down the history of voting and the nuances of voting laws. Mock-ups of Boston’s election ballots are tucked into voting booths stationed in the exhibit, giving high schoolers under 18 a chance to practice filling out a ballot. Younger attendees can cast their votes by launching a ping pong ball through a clear voting tube—an exercise that Angel Burke said helps museum staff explain the difference between a secret ballot and a public vote.

Last month, students from UMass Boston toured the exhibit and learned about the electoral college. High schoolers from the Met Liberty School in Rhode Island also traveled to the Institute, where they debated the “Green New Deal” proposal in the Senate chamber.

The students “were really energized and engaged,” said school principal Arthur Baraff, “and it’s not just that they get to see the Senate Chamber but that they actually get to engage with the educators.”

“For students, I especially hope that it will give them some context for all of the national conversations about voting rights that are going on at the moment,” said Sarah Yezzi, the institute’s director of education, family and youth programming.

Since reopening its in-person programming, Angel Burke said, the Institute has seen a higher percentage of Boston public school students coming to visit compared to previous years. The facility has in-person and virtual program reservations open through next June.

With its Senate Chamber resuming sessionz, Angel Burke said that the return to in-person programming will help to engage students after a year of sitting behind screens.

“There is nothing like group participation in the same space,” Angel Burke said. “That’s what the Senate is all about—it’s a group of people coming together.”

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