Ideas for Creating Safe(r) Festivals

9/26/08 - Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN - Alex Flood, 17, of Austin cheers for Gogol Bordello at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Friday Sept. 26, 2008.

By Victoria King

In light of a lot of really heinous behavior that came to surface nationally and locally a few months ago, our community started to have really great conversations through various media outlets. We spoke openly and passionately about creating safe(r) spaces in the local music scene, and new projects and initiatives started to reflect that.

Cootie Club still thrives, and the Good Will is continuing to champion their house rules. But as the cases of Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby fade away from the headlines, the danger is that these conversation fade away too. With Festival season on the horizon, it’s a good idea to remember those talks and engage in new ones too. Let it always be said that festivals are awesome – below are some ideas and considerations to make them awesome(r) for everyone.

Encourage Public and Shared Transportation

Whether inside or outside of the city, there are lots of ways we travel to and from festivals.

I’ve been saying this for a long time about our public transport system. There’s almost nothing I would like to see more than for our city to extend the running times of public transit routes, even if it’s only the major ones. Bars are open till 2 a.m. and shows can run even later. It’d be encouraging to see some support for our vibrant music culture by improving the infrastructure for it.

Lauren Swan of Big Fun Festival suggests that for festival organizers, it’d be great to facilitate or develop a rideshare program. “That can be difficult for smaller festivals,” explains Swan, citing budgetary concerns as a possible limitation. She suggests that starting a small-scale shuttle or DD program is a positive place to begin.

Exemplify Diverse Representation Onstage

“We have an open policy when it come to submissions,” says Swan. “We give everyone a fair listening, but don’t work under quotas.” She explains that most organizers are sensitive to creating a diverse line-up for their fest, but suggests that larger scale festivals may become beholden to corporate sponsors. With more “hands in the pot” comes more pressure and parameters. Putting someone on a stage means to exalt them, both physically and by explicit promotion. It can be empowering, both for a community and a festival. When bills start to show a pattern of the same people, you have to wonder who’s being left out.

Ro Walker Mills is a local MC who’s been producing spoken word poetry and music for the last 2+ years. Mills is participating in this year’s Pride Winnipeg Festival and the Pride Festival in Edmonton, but explains that it’s been challenging to book shows and collaborate with other artists. He speculates it might be because of identifying as transgender. “Being transgender gets a label, and so does rap,” explains Mills. He shares that he felt like he heard his true voice for the first time only after his voice started to change from hormones. “I feel like I have something to say, and I finally feel like myself.” Mills is hopeful for the potential of music festivals to bring new and diverse artists to a broader audience. “Festivals are for new music, and things you haven’t heard before,” explains Mills.

Zero Tolerance for Abuse

I’m not sure that there’s much to say here, other than it’s not okay. It’s never okay. It doesn’t matter who it is, who it’s directed at, what substance was involved, or how much. As an organizer, band member, or attendee, we shouldn’t legitimize abusive behaviour for any reason. Power and notoriety doesn’t excuse it either – everybody else deserves respect.

Explicitly stating the expectations of everyone in a space is what’s helped given rise to one of Winnipeg’s newest venues. The Good Will made a really smart move a few months ago by instituting house rules to equalize their space. Look how well they’re doing – there’s rarely a slow night! In June, they’ll host Iceage, Suuns + Jerusalem in my Heart, dance parties on the weekly, not to mention countless other community meetings and gatherings. I really believe that kind of success comes, in part, from fostering a culture where everyone is safe and respected. It’s time that festivals (and of course, other venues) adopt something similar. In these days, meaningfully creating a climate of acceptance is more than simply ‘progressive’ – it’s good business.

Assess Accessibility in a Multitude of Ways

Accessibility means more than building ramps. When we design venues or performance spaces, it’s necessary to invest time and energy in considering the space from a multitude of abilities and perspectives, says Megan Fultz, former UWSA president, and an accessibility advocate. She explains that accessibility is best spoken to by folks who deal with it firsthand. “People who have accessibility needs know their needs best, and they know what’s going to make or break it for them,” she says. She explains that sometimes an accessibility policy that’s posted to a festival’s website isn’t always the reality of that fest. “There can be significant costs to making a festival accessible (citing turf and terrain as particular ones) and it means making an investment,” both in planning, time, and budget.

Megan cites other challenges though – in particular, for folks who have trouble walking, experience weakness, or are visually impaired. A local step in the right direction comes from the Folk Festival’s companion policy, whereby those helping people who need support can get a free pass for the weekend’s fest. Another important recommendation Megan offers is to reserve an accessibility spot on organizing committees. That being said, also recognize that everyone represents their own perspective and consultation with multiple members of the community is a good start. “It’s much easier to be proactive than to fix issues later,” she explains. She’s hopeful though. “There are a lot of great people working in our scene, but there’s more work to be done.”