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African World Festival Picks Up Steam

Aug. 1, 2012
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It isn't every weekend that Milwaukee gets to experience African-American culture—with a magnificent array of music, dance and ethnic foods—or stroll through an African village and learn about the continent's many cultures.

The Wisconsin Department of Tourism hopes this year's African World Festival (AWF) encourages more people to enjoy this experience, and they backed that desire with money—a whole $10,000 of it—in the form of a marketing grant. African World Festival takes place Aug. 4-5 at Henry Maier Festival Park. AWF board chair Mark Wade talks about the festival's role in the community.

Why are you the man to chair the AWF board?

I'm a helper; I am not so much leading as I am helping. My leadership position needs to be one of both leader and helper, a subordinate or a straight laborer. That is pretty much the way my heart and mind works. Everybody might be needed (and want) to be Michael Jordan—sometimes there needs to be those of us that assist Michael Jordan. I do both.

What are your goals for this year?

We want it to not rain [laughing]. Primarily we intend to offer a festival that is successful and celebratory, as it relates to heritage and culture. Specifically, we want the festival to do well enough so we are able to pay all of our expenses and have a 20% profit—that would be a win.

What will that take?

Two days will help. This year we have Aug. 4-5. This way the costs are spread out over both days. We wanted to gradually increase; we didn't want to learn painfully by adding two days before we had capacity and resources. We have a pretty good idea, conceptually, on how to run a festival.

Who is on board, musically, this year?

Four stages: jazz, blues, R&B and gospel—reggae music all day Saturday and gospel all day Sunday. Featured artists are Angie Stone, Charlie Wilson, Denise LaSalle, Boney James, Alex Bugnon, Clarence Carter and Rick Braun, just to name a handful. There are over 20 artists slated to perform this year.

What did you learn from past festivals, exactly?

The festival was canceled in 2008 and I came on board in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, we were very successful. Still, we were not prepared for the unknown. There was overwhelming support by the community. The grounds were almost full by 1 p.m.—we opened at 12 p.m. and vendors ran out of food.

I also, as did our entire board, learned how to work together with other people [across racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines] and how to create mutually satisfying partnerships and lasting relationships to make these kinds of things work. We've locked arms with many groups around the city. We have brought young people on board, who are dedicated to volunteering and service as prerequisites for vibrant board impact. We have learned from our predecessors, triumphs and challenges.

Why aren't more African Americans/Blacks more involved in supporting African World Festival and the "community" in general?

We get good support from the community. People come and they have a good time.

I think one thing is that you have to have time to do things, and be able to afford to. In my experience, people think they have to be a volunteer all day in order to support the festival or an event. If we manage our time well, we may realize how much time we actually have left over to be engaged in positive community efforts. The more you are involved, the more you are involved.

Still, and unlike some festivals, like Irish Fest for instance, we are not fully staffed year round. It seems other ethnic groups are more than happy to be involved in a celebration of their own heritage, and they show their support. There is a dollar amount attached to that. AWF's offices are not to that point yet. We are totally volunteer-supported. Full-time staff is one person, and everyone else volunteers. We acutely recognize the value of volunteers.

How does AWF support the community?

We've been involved in bringing attention to human trafficking through women's wellness events. We have participated in voting initiatives and voter registration education. Currently, we are finalizing a program, "Great Start = Brighter Futures," which will assist students—beyond backpacks and school materials—with seminars on time management, study skills and transitioning from elementary to middle to high school.

Describe this year's event.

The jazz lineup is second to none and is as good as it gets. The ticket price hardly reflects the rich and abundant talent folks will have access to. Around the country, Essence Music Fest, for example—with the same caliber of lineups—has ticket prices five times of what ours costs.

AWF has an unbelievable upside to it. The spirit of our people is the greatest celebration of all, though. When my team came on, there was no festival [and] vending revenue was very low. We were out of business for two years and needed some wins. This year's African World Festival is poised to get some wins.

Tenacious and compassionate, Yolanda D. White is currently a hop, skip and a jump from earning a Master of Arts degree in administrative leadership. When free time appears, you may find her career coaching, blogging, promoting, volunteering, electronic bull riding or closely examining the cultural anthropological habits of interesting people.


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