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About the Institute

April 6, 2020

Inclusive democracy through artistic expression

By Jan Crocker

The A Seat at the Table project at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute has been an unusual, evolving exploration of what it means to have a seat at tables of power or influence through the imagination of artists and community groups. The iconic quote from Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm –– “if they don’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair” –– was a platform for thinking about identity, inclusion, and representation. It seemed only natural to invite others to blend their artistic voices and visions into a group perspective on influence and power in the form of an exhibit.

The first phase of this project reflected on the Congresswoman’s own wisdom and her stunning challenges as the first African-American woman to run for president. We encouraged visitors to think about persistent efforts to create legislation supporting equality, fairness, and inclusion. The exhibit became a dramatic gallery with dark, faceless chairs representing executive power and a chartreuse folding chair for Congresswoman Chisholm’s spot lit slightly at a distance from the table where power is based.

The Institute worked with schools, community organizations, scout troops, and libraries to educate young people about the great legacy of Congresswoman Chisholm and her life’s work. We arrived to sites across the Commonwealth with lots of colorful folding chairs and an enormous amount of art supplies. The groups created individual and collective expressions of their aspirations, hopes, and ideals. All these wonderful chairs moved into the exhibit and surrounded a large table. Audio snippets let visitors hear the inspiration behind some of the chairs.

Another, and last exploration of the topic on site, was an installation of professional artist-made chairs reflecting on the leadership of twenty highly regarded trailblazers from farmer worker rights leader Cesar Chavez to Congresswoman Barbara Lee and from Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver to gun control activist and March for Our Lives organizer Emma Gonzalez. Their imaginative pieces and recorded statements let the Institute’s visitors explore the exceptional, and often heroic, work people have done over time in the name of fairness and inclusion.

The Institute continues to encourage this project to evolve with the release of a new website, called, where new chairs can be added through a posting of designs. We believe this will continue the collaborative examination of what it means to have your own seat at the table and look forward to learning more from you.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, civic education organization in Boston envisioned by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Through a range of exhibits, interactive educational offerings, and topical programs, the Institute engages students and visitors in a conversation about the essential role each person plays in our democracy and in our society.