In 2019, people are still seeing and feeling the effects of the 2016 election. However, that was the same year the Greater Ithaca Activites Center (GIAC) began their Festival of Nations. The idea stemmed from another GIAC program, The GIAC Youth Council, which allows kids in the program to form their own governments and form their own ideas about politics. Angel Clairborne, daughter of GIAC Executive Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, had the idea of celebrating the numerous cultures of Tompkins County. Thus, GIAC’s Festival of Nations was born. Since then it has been held at GIAC but this year, it will be held at Ithaca High School on Sept. 7 from 11 a.m to 6 p.m. with free admission.
However, recently the festival has not quite been reaching GIAC’s goals, according to McBean-Clairborne, so this year the ideas are undergoing a slight makeover. Tompkins County has over 70 distinct countries with large active community groups. In the early days of the festival, McBean-Clairborne found it difficult to represent all of these countries, but she did try to get as many as possible to participate. She’s felt that all the residents of Tompkins County should have a great sense of who is around them. Some of the challenges faced every year are the size of the festival due to having the festival in GIAC which cannot accommodate the growth of the festival.
“When we looked at trying to represent 72 cultures with food, performances, and arts and crafts, the question is, where do we put it,” McBean-Clairborne asked. “So, that it’s good enough space to be representative and everyone doesn’t get a tiny little corner. That was the first challenge, the second was what does it mean to put this on financially; how much money do we need? None of us really had a cent so we reached out to festivals in Syracuse, and we asked them ‘when you’re putting on large events, how much money does it take and what do you do?’ What do you pay for and what do you expect others to pay for. That was our second challenge, understanding what sort of budget we need to work and work well so it doesn’t become a financial strain to GIAC.”
Other challenges included how to get people to participate in something like this when it has never happened before, and what would be the Plan B in the case of poor weather conditions. The former festival has been about small neighborhood vendors who were given a chance to come and sell food. Now it has become about a larger scale and how to represent the county’s diversity in the best possible way. McBean-Clairborne spoke about some of the cultures and countries represented at the festival.
“We have our African nations, the African diaspora is represented with folks from the Caribbean so we know there will be Caribbean food, dance, and music,” McBean-Clairborne said. “Then we have our Latinx culture who will have food, music, performances, and educational materials. Then we have our Asian cultures that will be represented with similar ways. We have folks from the Middle East, we have to represent our American culture with music and performances. And, we would not have this festival without representing our indigenous people. Our indigenous peoples will open our event with a prayer and honoring the land, followed by a number of performances such as line dancers, Latino band, dances from the Caribbean, African drumming and dance. The list goes on.”
There will also be Celtic and Irish music, with many cultures being pulled in who are willing to participate. In previous years, the renewed focus on the community cultures and large scale of this year’s event separate it from the GIAC festivals in past years. Other focuses will be on GIAC’s presence and place in the Ithaca/Tompkins County community as well, though not as much as in previous years. She felt this festival is special because people who attend will be able to see themselves represented in some way. McBean-Clairborne said that with so much hate, division and oppression in the country, people make connections and relationships to learn about new things and experience a wealth of culture.
Along with the Festival of Nations, GIAC will also be hosting the Gus Macker 3 on 3 Basketball Tournament. It’s a national tournament that has been running for 40 years with the Ithaca leg of the tournament being new for 2019. With families attending the tournament, this allows them the opportunity to take a stroll through the festival. She is grateful for everyone who has helped to put the event together and the foundations that have been able to support the festival.