By Lauren Rearick
Local elections have the power to captivate millions of people, even those who may not be eligible to cast their ballot. Take Harvard University’s 2019 undergraduate student government election as a prime example: Thanks to a now-viral campaign video, more than three million people were invested in the fate of two creative candidates, and their collaborative friends.
As most viral things do these days, the virality began with a tweet. On Tuesday (November 12), Uche White-Thorpe shared a video that his sister, Ifeoma “Ify” White-Thorpe, and her student government running mate, James Mathew, created for their campaign to serve as Vice President and President of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, respectively. They had enlisted fellow Harvard University juniors, Jenny Baker, EJayy DeVaughn, Mario Haskett, Eric Tarlin, Kelechi Ukah, and BJ Watson to create a campaign message that blew any button or poster out of the water. The video barely clocks in at a minute and a half, but the friends managed to pack every second with epic dance moves, rhymes about the candidates’ abilities, and a saxophone solo.
“My sister and her friend are running for pres and vp of Harvard’s student government and they never had to go this hard,” Uche tweeted — and based on the video’s current view count, he wasn’t exactly alone in his thinking. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker reached out to the students directly, and celebrities like Dwyane Wade voiced their support.
Best of all, however, was the response from Mathew and White-Thorpe’s classmates: The duo, whose campaign included a dedicated Instagram and the slogan “Harvard Can’t Wait,” won the election on Thursday (November 14).
White-Thorpe believed the campaign video had the potential to reach the students of Harvard, but she never imagined it would garner a response from the rest of the world. “I thought it was a great video, and it was something that our campus would love, especially since people would be able to empathize with their friends having a good time,” she told MTV News. She knows a thing or two about going viral — in 2017, she made national news after she received acceptance letters for all eight Ivy League schools. But even she couldn’t anticipate the video’s reach: “I did not think the reach would be that far.”
Mathew was also surprised by the support of social media, but told MTV News that perhaps it speaks to a much larger change needed in political campaigning. “We were so taken aback by the different types of celebrities that were in the Twitter comments,” he said. “What we did with this was make politics fun, and showed how young people are getting engaged in a nuanced way.”
As participants in 21 Colorful Crimson, an organization of students focused on using performing arts to showcase the diversity of Harvard talent, the candidates and their friends wanted the video to showcase what they feel is the greatest feature of the student body: its inclusivity. The project started with a brainstorming session in Watson’s dorm room, and came together in fewer than two days.Watson, Baker, and Tarlin wrote the track while Haskett produced the clip and Ukah served as videographer; Baker sang, Tarlin played saxophone, and Watson rapped.
“Mario and I had this song concept already,” Watson explained. “And because we had so many talented people, we had to come up with a way to have different genres of music all on one track. We called it a music roulette.”
“At our core, we’re all artists and we felt that was something that we definitely had to bring into our campaign,” White-Thorpe said. “We wanted to highlight that campaigning and politics could be fun, and it shouldn’t be draining. This is something that should benefit our entire student body and we wanted it to showcase the energy we would also bring to our administration.”
Although the group is admittedly baffled by the overwhelmingly positive reaction on social media, DeVaughn believes the video’s message goes deeper than a fire solo or a surprise sax. “What people see in the video is not only a solidarity amongst students of color, but simultaneously how they can exist freely. We can rock all together, we can all do our own moves, and that’s what was really moving,” he said.
But Mathew and White-Thorpe didn’t want to ask their classmates to vote for them on the merits of an anthem alone — no matter how good that song is. The two have a clear vision for the future of their campus, and detailed an extensive platform on their campaign website. During their time in office, the sociology major and government major want to focus on creating a campus where people of all identities feel welcome. Their platform features six focus areas — academic life; inclusion and belonging; student life; first-generation and low-income students; sexual assault prevention and response; and health, safety, and wellness — and White-Thorpe said they did their research to determine what issues needed to be addressed.
“We really went out of our way to go and speak with student groups, speak with administration, and really get to the heart of issues that people want to be addressed and bring more seats to the table,” she said.
To that end, their plans involve a number of changes to the Harvard campus, including the creation of a new building focused on fostering community. Their website details the duo’s plans to “convert a floor of the Smith Campus Center into a multicultural center to serve as a central space for students of color and other cultural identities, perfect for heritage month celebrations and cross-cultural collaboration,” and convert single-person bathrooms on campus to gender-inclusive spaces.
While their work as president and vice-president is just getting started, don’t expect this video to be the last installment. “If we have some good news tonight, there will definitely be more content coming soon,” Mathew told MTV News before the win was announced.
And Dwyane, if you’re reading, you have an open invitation from Tarlin to collaborate: “I gotta get D. Wade in the next one,” he said.