Know Milwaukee

African World Festival

By - Nov 19th, 2011 04:00 am
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In TCD’s continuing series on the people places and ideas that define our city, we visit six businesses in the Shops of Grand Avenue participating in the “Creativity Works Here” program. Click here for Part One at VETransferhere for Part Two at Art Milwaukee, and here for Part 3 at the Milwaukee Public Theatre, and here for Part Four at Spreenkler. This is Part Five.

Who: African World Festival is an almost 30-year-old cultural institution. Starting in 1982, African World Festival strives to be a year round presence that provides programming and promotes civic engagement in Milwaukee’s African American community. The organization is almost completely supported by volunteers.

“I am the sole contract employee,” said C. Michelle Bryant, Executive Director of African World Festival. Bryant credits volunteers as the backbone of the organization, and gave the example of passionate volunteers who have given up every vacation for the past 29 years so that they could help produce the festival.

Photos and video by Ken Pugh

What: The ultimate goal of African World Festival is “to share the culture and heritage of people of African-American descent with the global community, as well as advance education and civic engagement causes in the community.”

The organization has recently been involved in both endeavors. Currently, African World Festival is looking into working with legislators to compose a human trafficking task force in Wisconsin.

“They’re all types of services on an international level in terms of human trafficking, but if you were a victim of it right in this state, it didn’t get a whole lot of attention,” says Bryant. According to Bryant, recent investigative breakthroughs show a significant number of prostitutes in Wisconsin were forced into the practice when they were teenagers.

“It tugged at a couple of our board members and we decided to get engaged,” said Bryant.

As for the educational promotion of African World Festival, Bryant is pleased with the organization’s ability to support bright young minds.

“The thing I’m most impressed with is [the founders] had a vision about educating kids of color and in the last two years we’ve provided 27 college scholarships.”

Where: For more than 15 years, African World Festival was based in the Milwaukee Enterprise Building on Fourth and Locust. According to Bryant, the location was out of sight, out of mind.

“That building was isolated, out of the way, the community didn’t have an opportunity to interact with us except for once a year during the festival.”

A year ago, the organization moved into the old Vans Store on the first floor of Grand Avenue. This year, they moved upstairs to the second floor of the Plankinton Building into the location that once housed the store Bentley’s. Bryant says she’s seen a difference.

“People of all races and ages wander in and say ‘explain to me what you guys do?’”

African World Festival was approached by Grand Avenue’s mall management to join the “Creativity Works Here” campaign. The decision was easy for the organization.

“It was just a great opportunity,” said Bryant. “People are looking to revitalize this area and work together to do that.”

Why: African World Festival saw its darker days in 2008 and 2009, where they couldn’t afford to put the festival on in its allotted August slot in the Henry Meier Festival Grounds. Bryant felt obligated to volunteer.

“I was distraught about it, it didn’t make sense to me that the largest minority demographic in the city would not be represented in the summer festivals.”

Bryant and African World Festival volunteers strive to bring the festival back to have a voice for Milwaukee’s African-American community. It is apparent that these intentions are truly selfless.

“It can’t always be about the money….When I stood on the stage [in 2010] and saw all the faces from our community enjoying the festival there was no amount of money that anyone could’ve given me to compensate for that day, it was amazing.”

For more information on African World Festival, click here.

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