To commemorate the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rejoice the Vote, a local foundation dedicated to increasing civic engagement, is holding a Democracy Fest on Sunday, Aug. 6, complete with an introductory march, calls to action, live entertainment and free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Democracy Fest will kick off at 2 p.m. at the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in the Ithaca Commons, from which attendees will march to the Southside Community Center and hear from speakers such as New York State Sen. Lea Webb and the Rejoice the Vote founder, Jeff Furman. Taili Mugambee, a spoken word artist, and local bands, including the Southside Jam Band and DJ Double A, will be performing.
Furman said the younger generation’s continued efforts to promote civic engagement inspired him to develop this event.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work around democracy and voting around the country with young people,” Furman said. “I just got really caught up in their energy … so, I decided I was going to do something here in the community and try to look at the whole democracy, voting, civic engagement, [as] something we should celebrate.”
Furman’s life of public service was catalyzed early in his career when he served on the Ben & Jerry’s corporate board. As an original member of the company, Furman was a part of Ben & Jerry’s first activist endeavors of a company that would go on to be vocal on many controversial topics, and his devotion to activism has remained over many decades.
“If you look through the history of Ben & Jerry’s, we were always trying to be very careful that if we took a stand about something, we were doing it internally,” Furman said. “So I’m taking a stand, let’s have a celebration, let’s celebrate, because we could actually do something.”
In that spirit, Furman’s event will celebrate the Voting Rights Act, which was passed on Aug. 6, 1965, with bipartisan support in the Senate during the Johnson administration. In the nearly 58 years since that moment, the impacts of the landmark legislation continue to be both felt and challenged.
Furman said he wants to use Democracy Fest as an opportunity to recognize the history of the Voting Rights Act — both its triumph and initial struggle — due to his belief that the fight for voting rights in America is an ever-present battle.
“I was talking to a [young person] who’s running a place called GenVoter New York … and she said, ‘Well, what are we going to do after we get [legislation] passed?’ And I said, ‘You’re going to be doing this work until you look like me,’” Furman said. “That’s the nature of it because you will not definitely win it. There will always continue to be this struggle.”
Furman said that understanding the history of voting rights in America puts current threats to suffrage into perspective.
“People know the headlines: ‘All men are created equal,’ except only white men with property could vote. [The United States] never started off as a democracy,” Furman said. “Women met in New York — It took 72 years from when they met to get to vote. The Native Americans have only [in] 1924 become citizens of New York. You know, you have to have that understanding of the history to put it in some perspective … the struggle is still going on.”
Furman pointed to potential voting restrictions in states such as Florida, Texas and others as reasons why voter education is relevant. However, he believes voter education and civic engagement should not be fixed to singular moments in time.
“One of the reasons I got involved in this is that every two years in October everybody starts talking about [voting]. ‘You gotta register to vote, get people out,’ and I came to the conclusion that you have to do this work all year round,” Furman said.
Aside from Democracy Fest, Rejoice the Vote held the Votingest County Challenge in an effort to increase voter turnout in New York by awarding the county with the highest voter turnout with a trophy. In 2020, Albany won the prize for larger cities, with an eligible voter participation turnout of 75 percent.
Furman said the group’s efforts will extend beyond Democracy Fest. For International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15, he is developing a global celebration in the Ithaca Commons with cuisines from five different nations. Furman believes that celebrating democracy also means celebrating diversity.
To the Rejoice the Vote founder, such events honoring landmark voting legislation and other celebrations of democracy are important due to the unique ability of democracy to connect citizens to one another. Democracy Fest is just one way to highlight that importance.
“Voting is one way we can participate in civic society and one part of democracy — democracy is one way we can be truly human and responsible to each other,” Furman said.
Christopher Walker is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. A version of this story was originally published in the Ithaca Times.