July 16, 2008

African World Festival: Joy and Pain

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Like many of you, I was stunned recently to learn that board members of the African World Festival had decided to cancel the weekend long celebration this year.  Since its inception in 1982, the festival had been an annual event meant to celebrate African heritage and culture. 

Rumors had circulated for weeks and speculation became reality on Wednesday when directors confirmed many in the community’s worst fears.  It was no secret that the festival had seen lower than needed turn out in recent years and had been operating in the red.  But many were optimistic that a change in board membership and reorganization of the festival would turn things around.  Now we are all left asking, where did we go wrong.  And when I say “we”, I do mean all of us. 

Any number of factors could have contributed to our current circumstance.  Management decisions by board members, lack of community support, violence that had marred the festival in 1998, a failure of elected officials to be more involved, or simply the current national economic climate.   We could certainly look to the basic cost of the festival doing business: roughly $80,000 to rent the summerfest grounds, insurance costs that reached $50,000 at one point, administrative costs and the obvious funds needed to bring in national acts. If I could also reiterate, the last violence associated with the festival happened more than 10 years ago!

Whatever the factors, bottom line we shouldn’t be standing in this place.  Milwaukee certainly has the population and means to support this festival.  With attendance reaching nearly 50,000 at its peak, most of us remember a time when the weekend was a much anticipated affair.  Family reunions and vacations were organized around the festival.  In addition, tourists and vendors flocked to Milwaukee from around the nation, as well as internationally.  The festival provided an opportunity to connect with old friends, make new ones, and learn about our history all while swaying to Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Happy Feelin’s”.

And if I could borrow from just one more of the groups many hit songs, our community knows all too well what it means to face “Joy and Pain”.  Without saying, pain is what most of us are experiencing has we digest the festivals fate this year.  But we are certainly in a position to reorganize, restructure, and rebuild.  In short, joy is possible at the opportunity to bring the board, community, elected officials, and any area stakeholder to the table interested in returning the festival next year.

Certainly some creative thinking, perhaps partnering with area Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, or the MPS recreation department to incorporate the festival attendance into the offerings of these programs, at least for the Friday attendance, we could see revenues turn around.  Whatever the solutions, and here are many, we can begin preparing now for 2009 and the years to come.  Our history is one of struggle and resilience.  I look forward to us all working together to meet up at the festival next year.