The Local Colors Festival has taken place for the past 29 years in Roanoke, and if event organizers have their say, the 30th celebration will occur this year too – just not on its intended May date. The situation with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been extremely challenging, but the belief is that the festival still will happen in July.
The first Local Colors Festival occurred on the Roanoke Farmers Market in 1990.
Pearl Fu, who is credited with its creation, was adamant about promoting better understanding among people of different cultures throughout the Roanoke Valley. In those days, Fu used to approach people from other countries to learn their story and encourage them to share their ethnic traditions during the festival. Under Fu’s leadership, Local Colors grew exponentially in numbers and overall popularity.
When the organization attained independent nonprofit status in 2005, Fu became its executive director. Fu maintained that position until her retirement in 2014. Beth Lutjen became her successor and held the position five years. Lisa Spencer, who previously worked as a grants administrator for Volunteers of America Texas, now occupies that position.
“Our beloved Pearl Fu tirelessly embraced all cultures and wanted people to embrace the value of diversity,” said Brenda Hale, Local Colors board secretary. “I continue to have the highest degree of respect and esteem for my friend. We must continue living out her dream of uniting the community. I feel it is our responsibility to continue the work that she started. We simply cannot fail in this mission. “
Certain moments last for a lifetime, and for Roanoke native Kianna Davis, the first time she attended the Local Colors Festival falls in that category. “It is all about the Parade of Nations for me. I love to see all of the countries march together because it shows how much the festival has grown over the years. I especially enjoy watching friends and community leaders represent their home countries,” Davis said.
Roanoke Valley residents such as Priscilla Casey appreciate the inclusiveness that the Local Colors Festival offers. “It is hard to believe that this event has been around for 30 years.” Casey said. “I attended the very first one, and I distinctly remember the beautiful colors, costumes, crafts and friendly people. Exposure to diversity allows use of a different view. The more we know, the more we understand whether it is regional, gender preference, religion or cultural differences.”
What started as an idea Fu’s to help her learn other cultures has grown into one of the largest events hosted in Roanoke. More than 12,000 people attend the Local Colors Festival annually.
Preparation for the festival is a year-long task. After the Steering Committee adjusts policies from the previous year, the necessary permits must be secured. From there, the next step is to solicit sponsors and identify available emcees and vendors.
The Cook Island Dancers, St. Philoxenia Syrian Church, Little Friends Dance Group, St. Elias Lebanese Dancers and Kultura Pilipino Philippine Dancers were some of the acts that graced the stage last year.
As the current executive director, Spencer is responsible for all operational functions. “I work with an extensive checklist with pieces that committee members assist with such as securing porta potties, coordinating volunteers, organizing stage performances and obtaining the beer truck for our international beer garden among many other things,” she said. “I love that I have a hand in promoting so many different cultures and get to work with so many talented people from all over the world.”
More than just an annual festival, Local Colors is the premiere Roanoke Valley multicultural program. Each year the non-profit organization works with colleges, schools, government and local businesses in addition to other arts and culture organizations. Some of the resources available through Local Colors include educational lectures, authentic cooking demonstrations, booth displays full of information and diversity initiatives such as the City of Roanoke’s Welcoming Week.
“Roanoke is a hub for cultural engagement in Southwest Virginia, and Local Colors has helped establish that role,” Davis noted. “I have friends here from several different countries and they often mention Local Colors as one of their first introductions to life in the Roanoke Valley.”
May is always a memorable month for Ginger Arnold. Not just because of the Local Colors Festival, but because her birthday falls in that month too. An educator in Roanoke City, Arnold says that many of her students are English learners. “I have been fortunate enough to see some of my pupils perform at various events in recent years. Local Colors make me proud to call Roanoke home. What a great opportunity we all have to get to know people from so many different backgrounds,” she said.
The mission of Local Colors has remained the same since day one: to celebrate Roanoke’s ethnic diversity and promote multicultural understanding through education, services and events. “We do culturally specific events throughout the year. For example, we work with the Taubman Art Museum to put on an event for Lunar New Year, which is the first Saturday in February. Last year, we introduced a new event for Hispanic Heritage Month, which will run from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. The event was held Oct. 12 downtown outside the public library and students from Northcross School participated with a flag presentation,” Spencer said.
She continued, “We had live music, authentic Mexican food and an educational piece about the importance of Hispanic Heritage Month and Latino contributions to the community. We are always looking at ways to highlight other cultures in the community and we hope our events will be even bigger this year.”
Any time Local Colors is having an event, there is a good chance that Roanoke County resident Cindy Wingfield will be present. Whenever the mother of four brings her three children to something hosted by Local Colors, she says it usually leads to an in-depth conversation at the kitchen table. Some of Wingfield’s most notable memories over the years include participating in Hispanic Heritage Month and interacting with people who speak different languages.
It’s no secret that inclusion makes people feel welcomed. No one is excluded from any Local Colors event and attendees usually have several hours to take pictures and ask questions. In recent years, more than 100 member nations have shared their cultures via costumes, art, dance, song and cuisine through Local Colors.
Unmitigated joy happened the first time that Roanoke native Linda Pham attended the festival. “I had a great time watching the awesome performances with my friends. Diversity makes the world more colorful and interesting. It’s important to open our minds to learning about others and where they come from. It will allow us to be more compassionate and kind rather than use differences to divide,” she said.
Ciani Fudge was a high school senior when she first attended a Local Colors Taste of Culture event in 2013. As she and her parents were heading back to their car, Fudge had just one question to ask them: Can we go to more Local Colors events?
“My parents raised me to believe that at the end of the day, life is a collection of memories. Experiencing Taste of Culture was so much fun because until that point, neither of us had ever tried Sudanese food. Now it’s something that we consume at least once a month,” Fudge said.
There are approximately 100 nationalities in the Roanoke Valley, and Local Colors takes pride in uniting all of them on Festival Day. An estimated 400,000 people have experienced the annual occasion since its inaugural date.
*“I have always lived in very diverse cities. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Southern California. I lived in Boston for seven years and Providence, Rhode Island, for seven years too. I also lived in Dallas for about a decade,” Spencer said. “On the surface it may appear that Roanoke Valley isn’t diverse but that simply is not the case. I love this place, and I look forward to sharing our message with as many people as possible.”
Additional information about Local Colors can be found by visiting localcolors.org or searching for the non-profit organization on Facebook.
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