‘Meet, Share and Care’ at This Summer’s Virtual Festival of Nations

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Every visitor to the Festival of Nations leaves with souvenirs that money can’t buy: precious memories of the moments when two cultures crossed paths for the first time.

I’m lucky enough to have a video of one of these joy-filled exchanges between a Turkish ice cream vendor and a street-smart tween of Polish heritage who was determined that he would not fall for the slight-of-hand tricks the vendor played while handing out cones to customers.

As I expected, the vendor completely schooled my young friend. He walked away shaking his head in admiration—and enjoying the unique flavors and textures of Arabic ice cream for the first time.

This year’s memory-making won’t happen in the usual setting in Tower Grove Park because the Festival of Nations is fully online Aug. 28-30. But the COVID-19 pandemic can’t take away the spirit of celebrating the richness the immigrant and refugee community brings to St. Louis—and the organizers intend to focus on that spirit.

“We cannot duplicate the actual physical experience or all of the things that made the on-site festival so wonderful,” says Anna Crosslin, director of the Festival of Nations. “We’re aiming to offer what helps people connect with individuals who might not necessarily be like them.”

Crosslin is the president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, which has organized the festival annually since 2001 (and off and on for many more years during the Institute’s 101-year history). “At the heart of so much conflict right now is the fact that people are siloed,” Crosslin says. “There are too infrequently opportunities to be inclusive and create community. The Festival of Nations is about sharing our diversity—but also figuring out what’s common to the roots of all that diversity. We all dance. We all have music. We all have foods.”

Frances Pestello, who chairs the International Institute’s board committee for the festival, echoes Crosslin’s enthusiasm for the new format. “It will be interactive in a different way,” she explains. “The demonstrations where people can learn about another culture will still be there, in a virtual way.”

Likewise, the musicians and performers who fill the stages with color and sound will be present online—some as individuals and small groups (due to social distancing, which makes it hard for large ensembles to practice together) and some via footage from years past.

This year’s virtual experience is organized into four categories: Taste (food), Discover (performances), Learn (demonstrations and lessons) and Connect (conversations). The activity schedule will be posted under Discover starting on Aug. 21, with frequent updates as plans come together, most likely right up until showtime.

Organizers have worked especially hard on the Taste experience, according to Crosslin and Pestello. The culinary booths are always one of the festival’s biggest draws—and selling food is a crucial source of income for many of the nonprofit organizations and restaurants that participate.

To help offset the financial losses, a virtual food court has been set up. The online database on the Taste page includes ethnic eateries from restaurants to food trucks—and it’s interactive, so viewers can add their favorites. This year, festival-goers could use the guide to order food for carryout, then sign in to hear a virtual performance online while they dine in their own back yard.

Best of all, the virtual food court will stay open after the festival ends—which will be especially beneficial for the International Institute’s clients with small food programs, Crosslin says.

On the Connect page, St. Louisans are invited to share their memories from past festivals and, eventually, their own migration stories. “What the Festival of Nations is really about is building a community of people who love the multicultural aspects of St. Louis and feel that our region is better for it,” Crosslin says.

“The festival is always about feeling good and appreciating other cultures,” Pestello adds. “It emphasizes learning about other people and what they bring to St. Louis.”

In that spirit of unity, the festival and all of its educational experiences are intentionally apolitical. The goal of building a more welcoming, inclusive society for all St. Louisans is captured in its simple motto: “Meet. Share. Care.” In this time of heightened awareness of broad racial and economic disparities among sections of society, the Festival of Nations is an example of how bridges can be built to improve multicultural understanding.

‘Meet, Share and Care’ at This Summer’s Virtual Festival of Nations

As St. Louis’ immigrant service and information hub, the International Institute has been especially busy during the pandemic. Crosslin says that its 85 staff members have worked tirelessly since March, coordinating connections with clients and providing information about the virus in many languages. In a way, the festival going virtual helps them stay focused on this urgent mission. “Since we won’t have an on-ground presence, some staff have more time to focus on the huge COVID commitment,” Crosslin says.

However, staff are still working on some special elements for the festival, including a roundtable featuring children of immigrants talking about what it’s like to grow up in dual societies (tentatively scheduled for Aug. 28) and an informational presentation on the current state of immigration and where it may be headed in the future (on Aug. 30). They’re also planning additional events like an International Dash and Dine (a run/walk with a takeout dining component, tentatively scheduled for September).

Perhaps the biggest silver lining about organizing the virtual festival this year is that allows the International Institute to expand its footprint. People can attend from anywhere, Crosslin points out, and that has great value for residents of rural areas or those who can’t travel this year due to the pandemic. “Regardless of how quickly we get back to in-person festivals, we will maintain a virtual festival too,” she promises.

The Festival of Nations Online runs Aug. 28-30. The live virtual experiences are offered for free, but some may require advance registration because they use the Zoom platform; details will be available on the website. For up-to-the-minute news, check out the International Institute’s social media feeds via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Images courtesy of the International Institute. Featured image by Jerry Smith.

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