Organizers hope to bring back ‘bigger and better’ International Festival in 2024 after using this year to regroup

People in colorful dresses stand together
Members of Filipino American community in Harrisonburg (participants since the first festivals in Hillandale Park in the late 1990s) pose for a photo at a previous International Festival. (Photo courtesy of Ingrid Manning)

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

While organizers of Harrisonburg’s International Festival pulled the plug on this fall’s event, they’re hoping to regroup to plan a better one in 2024. 

The event was planned for late September. But the FairField Center — a nonprofit conflict mediation organization that has acted as the primary organizer of the festival for more than a decade — announced last week it needed to reevaluate its leadership as well as its festival planning strategies. 

Jalal Maqableh, FairField’s interim director who was integral in discussions surrounding the 2023 festival, said one important factor was that everyone at the center wanted to host a festival that community members would enjoy. 

“The board decided that maybe it would be better for the reputation of the festival to cancel this year and start preparing for a stronger one next year,” Maqableh said.

The festival brings together vendors, food trucks, and cultural displays like music and dancing from a variety of countries. Some of those nations and heritages represented are connected to people who have recently immigrated to the area, especially because Harrisonburg is a designated refugee resettlement community through Church World Service. 

While FairField staff and board members said they enjoy organizing the festival and engage with so many members of the community, the logistics of planning such a large event is a point of concern every year, said FairField Director of Operations Ingrid Manning. 

Manning said the FairField Center served as a primary organizer because of how involved it is with many different communities in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. As a mediation service, most of the center’s cases come from the Juvenile Domestic Court of Virginia, and its staff members have worked with many families from this area as well as families who have emigrated from all over the world. 

Out of the more than 10 years that the center has been organizing the festival, however, it’s the past few that have started to put a strain on the organization, often stretching the staff thin. 

“These past few years, especially since the pandemic started, have been tough,” Manning said. 

Especially because they are simultaneously handling an increase in caseload and some pretty major changes with their internal leadership structure, the board came to realize through discussions that putting on the festival this year was not really feasible for them. 

While the festival is a one-day event, it requires a significant amount of time and money to organize and execute. 

“This event requires a lot more than what people expect,” Maqableh said. “It takes months of planning and working with the different stakeholders, the City of Harrisonburg, all the different departments… as well as all the different vendors. One of the main challenges is the financial aspect.” 

People in colorful garb dance
Miguel Muñíz and family members from Harrisonburg and as far away as New York, who make up the Ollin Papalotl Mexika Traditional Dance Group, perform during the 2022 International Festival. (Photo courtesy of Ingrid Manning)

Maqableh said it’s always been important to the center to make the event accessible for everyone in Harrisonburg, which is why there hasn’t been an admission fee. But the cost of having vendors, performers, and other events and attractions add up quickly. Manning said because the FairField Center is a nonprofit organization, it has fewer means than for-profit companies. 

Dillina Stickley, FairField’s board chair, said the center earns no profit from the International Festival and that it’s not the goal of the center to do so. Rather, in a time when their services are in high demand, they need to reevaluate how they can cover the financial costs of the festival in the future in order to allow it to grow as the community does, maintain the standards that previous festival-goers are used to — and keep admission free. 

The board is already strategizing about the festival’s future.

“We want to do the Harrisonburg International Festival the way it deserves to be done,” Stickley said. “Bigger and better.” 

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