seat at the table kennedy institue

The Seat at the Table exhibit at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston.

Photo by Eric Haynes, Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute

 

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Those iconic words by fomer Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) have inspired thousands to charge into politics, and now, they’ve inspired an exhibit and project out of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

 

Through the Seat at the Table project, the Kennedy Institute will connect with visitors, schools and youth-focused organizations across the commonwealth to talk about the importance of diversity in democracy.

 

To launch the project, the Institute recently unveiled its Seat at the Table exhibit, which features a table surrounded by large wooden chairs. There’s one yellow folding chair at the table, on which a spotlight shines.

 

Though the project and exhibit are largely inspired by Chisholm’s words, they also come at a crucial point in the country’s political landscape, said Kennedy Institute President Mary K. Grant.

 

“This time we’re in, different individuals and more women are stepping up, coming into the forefront and saying, ‘My voice matters, I can make a difference,’” she said. “It’s not only about what’s happening right now as we’re heading into the midterms, but for us it’s what has been happening leading up to this point, and then what happens the day after midterms? The next generation of leaders really recognizes that if there isn’t a seat at the table, they have to make one.”

 

Kennedy Institute and Seat At the Table : Beyond the Senate

Though the Kennedy Institute educates the public on the Senate (and includes a full-scale reproduction of the U.S. Senate chamber inside its Morrissey Boulevard address), it really aims to go beyond that, Grant said, to teach people about how the government works in general.

Through the Seat at the Table project, school groups and community organizations (including some Boston Public Schools, the Boston Children’s Museum, the Boston International Newcomers Academy and more) will create and design their own folding chairs, which will be displayed on rotation at the Institute. While creating them, they’ll talk about what representation means as well as what it takes to be a leader.

seat at the table | edward m. kennedy institute

(Photo by Eric Haynes. Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute)

This effort goes beyond the usual political messages ahead of an election, Grant said, which focus on getting out to vote. The Kennedy Institute cares about that too, of course, but the concept of getting a seat speaks to the bigger picture of politics.

“This is about more than just one election,” she said. “It’s really about recognizing the changes happening across our country within our democracy, the emerging leaders that we need to fill the next leadership pipeline and helping the next generation understand the different pathways to leadership.”

We know Chisholm got her seat at the table, Grant said, but what we might not know is how difficult the road to that seat can be.

Even in progressive Massachusetts, we haven’t mastered ensuring diverse representation in our democracy. With her primary win back in September, Ayanna Pressley is poised to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress — a move toward diversity, for sure, but maybe a surprisingly late one to some Bay Staters.

a seat at the table | kennedy institute

(Photo by Eric Haynes. Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute)

Pressley isn’t involved in the project, but she said she’s excited by the effort. She’s been inspired by Chisholm for years, she said in a statement to Metro.

"She refused to wait her turn to lead and demanded that everyone have the right to participate in our government,” Pressley said. “Our campaign worked diligently to carry on her legacy by engaging and empowering every community in the 7th District, because government for and by the people demands a diverse coalition of voices and perspectives. I am thrilled that the Edward M. Kennedy Institute has chosen to highlight Shirley's leadership, and to help spur a conversation about why diverse voices and diverse representation matter so much to the health of our democracy."

Like Pressley, Michelle Wu has worked for her seat at the table, becoming the first Asian American woman to serve on Boston City Council and the first woman to serve as council president. She’s not affiliated with the Kennedy Institute project either but commended the work.

“We have to lift of up examples of people who have been trail blazers all throughout the history of the country, and there's so many barriers broken today unfortunately that have taken this long,” she said. “But I think everytime we can point to the experience of someone who has really led the way, that just changes the perception of who should be able to be a decision maker and how the next generation thinks about what they can do.”