Emulating the grassroots spirit of the Bernie Sanders political campaign, volunteers, band members, DJs and staff came together for six hours on March 12 to assemble the stage for Bernie Fest 2016.

That night, a total of 20 musicians, 10 vendors and eight social organizations congregated in Orlando's Milk District to provide a social context for political empowerment. The festival, dubbed “A Party to Believe In,” drew a crowd of 1,600 attendees.

“We believe in the power of using music, not only as a tool for bringing people together, but as a way of exposing people to a political message that hasn’t been widespread since the 60s and 70s,” event coordinator Nick Sawyer said.

Scheduled to occur three days before the Florida presidential primary, Bernie Fest was organized by Body // Talk, a local dance-party community, “to meet people where they are – particularly young people who require the greatest amount of encouragement to vote,” Sawyer said.

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Body // Talk founder and UCF student Phil Santos said he saw the social platform as an opportunity to take a stand in the election.

“If we could bring people in with a little bit of music and culture, we could show people that they do have political power,” Santos said. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train, and if you’re not saying anything, you’re hurting the cause.”

The festival, which performing artist Zu Haven said is part of a bigger movement, drew in a diverse crowd of varying ethnicities, ages and backgrounds.

“When things need to go right, people will unite,” said Haven, who, like all other artists, played his set for free.

Bernie Fest featured a full line-up from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. in three stages located at Spacebar, the Sandwhich Bar and an outside area set up in the back lot of the downtown Orlando bars.

Santos said he booked the 20-artist line-up in a matter of 48 hours.

“People were just absolutely, ‘yes, I want to play,’” he said. “They were super enthusiastic to perform their art for Bernie.”

Attendees were encouraged to donate $5 at the door, but the event was otherwise open to the public.

In addition to performing artists, vendors and social organizations, including Knights for Bernie and Young Democrats of Orange County, claimed real estate at the festival with tables and tents to engage event-goers.

"I really believe in the political revolution that Bernie Sanders has started and was excited to be a part of an event that supported his campaign," said Jaimie Lanning, a UCF student and officer of the Campus Peace Action club who had a vendor table at the event. "It was great exposure and I got to make a donation to his campaign at the end of the night."

But more important than money, Sawyer said the event succeeded in inspiring a thousand and a half people to go out and vote in what could be one of the most important elections of their lives.

In a presidential campaign he believes will go down in history, Santos said he hopes the most positive consequence will be the spike of millennial votes in Orlando, and the impact of having a 1,600-person party three days before the election.

"So many of these people that came out are not political people, they’re not activists," he said. "They’re just regular people that want to go out and have a good time in support of their favorite candidate."

For Haven, who described himself as "not political," his motivation to be involved was seeing the authentic good in Sanders' message.

"What I see right now, it’s possible we can make things happen for the better. We need to focus on our children and our children’s children, and I want to build something that will benefit my child," said Haven, who like many, is uniting to build a stage for change to come.


Daniela Marin is a digital producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at

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