Annual Festival of Cultures brings the world to Skokie
Yujin Zhou, 8, looks at her name in Japanese with her mom, Xiaqiong Wang, at Skokie's Festival of Cultures held Saturday and Sunday in Oakton Park. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 29, 2012 9:32AM
It was a trip around the world without ever having to leave Oakton Park.
Nearly three dozen cultures were represented during Skokie’s 22nd annual Festival of Cultures over the weekend.
The extraordinary celebration of Skokie’s ethnically diverse population benefited from two days of warm and clear weather and the enthusiastic participation from visitors, volunteers and merchants.
“Not only (do) visitors to the festival experience more than three dozen cultural booths, attendees also enjoyed two days of ethnic folk music and dance, a wide range of food, unique arts and crafts, international children’s games, and a merchandise marketplace,” said Festival Planning Committee Chairperson Michelle Tuft.
The cultural booths were lined up in a couple of rows allowing visitors to “tour the world” while taking a short stroll. Many of those who staffed the booths came from designated countries and were more than willing to provide firsthand information about worlds far away from Skokie.
“Have you ever been to Croatia?” asked a woman who then provided an authentic account.
Her booth included artifacts made in Croatia and books that reflected the beauty of the country. Each booth was set up this way — to provide passersby a quick glimpse of a culture and the opportunity to explore it more with someone in the know.
The international marketplace included an impressive array of authentic jewelry, art, carvings, rugs and other items for sale.
“It’s really an amazing event,” said Anton Selevant as he looked at a rug made in India. “I’m not sure if there’s anything quite like this anywhere else around here.”
The main stage closest to the Oakton Park field house offered non-stop musical entertainment from all over the world. Inside, there was more to enjoy.
When Skokie threw its first Festival of Cultures in 1991, it displayed far fewer cultures. The event has grown since then — just as Skokie has grown in diversity.
Nearly 100 different languages are spoken inside Skokie homes now as different cultural and ethnic groups play increasingly important roles in village affairs.
The Festival of Cultures began out of a Skokie ethnic diversity project called VOICES (Valuing Our Image Concerning Ethnicity in Skokie). The project aimed to promote a better understanding between Skokie residents of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. In the earliest years, the festival featured 13 cultures on display and had more than 1,000 attendees. Now, festival attendance can reach nearly 30,000 when the weather cooperates.
The event has become a blueprint of sorts for other communities wanting to stage a similar celebration of their diverse populations. The winner of state and national art event programming awards, the Festival of Cultures also has inspired other popular village events celebrating diversity such as Coming Together in Skokie and Know Your Neighbor.
A committee made up of 80 to 100 members meet in October over a diverse potluck dinner to begin planning the event some seven months away.
“It’s always been such a great reflection of the diverse community that we have here,” Tuft said about the event. “People come out to the festival to learn about other cultures and ask questions. It’s a fun event and a great way to celebrate diversity here.”
The festival’s budget is usually more than $75,000 even though it doesn’t make quite that amount back.
The event’s biggest financial contribution — an annual grant from the Illinois Arts Council — was reduced from $20,000 to $5,000 over recent years because of the state budget crisis.
The original $20,000 grant from the council would allow the event to break event. But even so, the Skokie Park District, one of the main sponsors of the event, has always been willing to make up the gap.
In addition to the Park District and the Illinois Arts Council, the festival this year was sponsored by NorthShore University HealthSystem–Skokie Hospital, RCN, Rotary Club of Skokie Valley, Kiwanis Club of Skokie Valley, the Village of Skokie, and the Skokie Public Library.
A mother and her young son Saturday afternoon stood outside the Russian booth.
“That’s where your daddy is from,” she told him.
It was clear by the boy’s interest and how his eyes lit up that he had heard about Russia many times.
“We may go there one day,” the boy told no one in particular.
For now though, it seemed like he was there — even if he was only a few blocks from home.