A dreary, drizzly day might seem the perfect sort of day to have an event called the Umbrella Arts Festival.
But this event isn’t about protecting anyone from the weather. It is about protecting Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander people–also known as the ASPA Community–from invisibility in Evanston.
The festival is in its third year, having grown from about 300 attendees in 2021, to about 1,000 last year, according to Melissa Molitor, who founded the festival, as well as the grassroots group Evanston ASPA.
Molitor and Evanston ASPA are on a mission to raise the visibility of the Asian community, which constitutes approximately ten percent of Evanston’s population.
The festival was held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, in Evanston’s Fountain Square. The healthy crowd of attendees looked over vendors selling standard festival goods as well as food, albeit with a decidedly Asian flavor.
There were dance and music groups, the highlight being a pair performing a Burmese Peacock Dance, as well as Korean Pungmul (percussion) Drummers marching through the square.
Several government officials were on hand to deliver brief speeches, including Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss.
Asked why he felt it was important to speak at the event, Biss said, “This is a community that gives so much to Evanston and it’s too often overlooked. I think we need to do everything we can to both celebrate the community and to make sure that we’re all together in public learning from one another and enjoying each other’s company and cultural contributions.”
Later, in a speech to the crowd, he stressed that Evanstonians needed to “stand in solidarity” with the Asian community against increased hate and violence directed towards its members.
Speaker Josina Morita, a Cook County Commissioner and the first Asian-American woman on the Cook County Board, spoke of positive movement in the state to recognize the ASPA community’s accomplishments and contributions to society.
She noted the recent passing of the TEACH (Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History) Act, which made Illinois the first state in the nation to require all public schools to teach a unit on Asian American history. “We believe the best response to hate is education,” she said.
Donna Wang Su, member of the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board, spoke of the many slights she, a person of Taiwanese heritage, has endured throughout her life, and still encounters to this day.
She spoke about often being aggressively questioned about her heritage by people who assume she can’t be an “American,” or Evanstonians making insensitive comments about her or her family’s physical appearance. “Let us not only learn better, but let us live and be better.” she concluded.
Molitor said that she thinks the festival has grown very fast in the three years it has existed simply because there is no other similar event centering around the Asian community in Evanston.
She said the festival is an attempt to increase the visibility of the Asian community, which was needed because of the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence during the pandemic years. “It became very apparent that there really weren’t any systems of support or services for the Asian community here in Evanston…and there never really has been.”
She added that, in Evanston, the Asian community has been overlooked, invisible and under-served. To remedy this, Evanston ASPA is planning events to raise the community’s profile in town.
The group’s next event is the Lantern Festival at Arrington Lagoon on the Lakefront at 7:30 p.m., May 30. This event is based on an Asian custom of releasing paper lanterns on bodies of water to note the passing of seasons, as well as other cultural beliefs.
Molitor said that the group’s most ambitious project is to bring an Asian American arts and culture center to Evanston. “That is something that will intertwine with (the festival) and other events,” to raise the ASPA community’s profile.
She thinks her group’s activities, including the festival, gives the local Asian community a sense of belonging. “It’s important for people to see themselves reflected in their community,” she said.
I thought the Umbrella Arts Festival was a very entertaining and educational event. It is a great opportunity to celebrate Asian culture and awareness of the diversity in our community. I am glad to learn that the festival has been growing each year since it began. I hope that in the future it expands from a 3 hour event to an all day event with more performances, music, and food vendors.
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