When a wide array of people with a host of different backgrounds and experiences can come together a community becomes stronger and healthier. This all begins with the way students are educated in an ever-changing worldwide political and economic climate.
Here at Muhlenberg College, it is clear that diversity is not only welcomed, but embraced, and integrated into the learning by the professors. Enhancing the way that material is transmitted in a real-world context, Allentown’s International Cultural Festival makes it clear that this idea of “awareness education” is thriving well beyond the confines of the “Muhlen-bubble.”
Allentown resident Michelle Zattoni, founder of the Second Annual International Cultural Festival, is an active member of the arts community in Allentown and values the celebration of diversity through her work with Clever Minds Schools in Nigeria, which provides underprivileged orphans access to education.
“The reason why I started the festival was because I wanted to create a platform for minority businesses…I want the community to see how hardworking, talented and ultimately vital these people are. This may not be New York or Philly, but the fact that so many people are involved in bringing this event to life is incredible,” said Zattoni.
The festival was located at the Arts Park in Allentown’s city center and was complete with over a dozen vendors, a wide array of food samplings from various cultures from all corners of the Earth and a number of unbelievably friendly and supportive people who were beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to share this important part of their lives with others.
Francina Phillips, who was serving dishes from Guyana with her sister, said, “This festival brings all that the Lehigh Valley has to offer, and I’m honored that I get to bring a piece of my cultural identity to the table…Sadly, in the U.S., too many people confuse Guyana with Ghana, and today is special because I feel that I’m educating others on my heritage.”
In conversing with several other vendors and local business owners, one that stood out was Janis Parrilla, who described the great passion she had in helping to get this event on its feet.
“If you’re an astronaut and you look back on the world, you don’t see borders. Just a big blue ball in the sky where we exist as human beings. That’s what this festival is really about,” said Parrilla.
Parrilla also spoke about how diverse this area is, and how that should be emphasized to the public.
“Today is a day for everyone to feel included. The only thing that separates us from peace, love and understanding is our lack of education, and today is a day designed to educate this community,” said Parrilla.
Some of the highlights of the International Cultural Festival are the numerous performances given throughout the day. For hours at a time a sizable group of people gathered in rows of folding chairs to watch singers and instrumentalists make music representative of different world cultures, with many of them even getting up out of their seats to dance to the irresistible rhythms.
In addition, the festival hosts a fashion show, which is coordinated by Northampton Community College student Hajar Berziz. Often called the “star of the event,” Berziz used this as an opportunity to educate twenty-five international students on how to tackle a real-world project firsthand. She described her motivation behind the fashion show, which was to take these students’ education beyond the classroom and prepare them to be expressive, experienced and knowledgeable citizens within the workplace.
Everyone interviewed was grateful for this festival, for their heritage and for the Allentown community. They greatly valued the support and encouragement of love and inclusivity in the world, and believed strongly in the notion that, as one anonymous visitor stated, “America is beautiful because no one is truly American. Each person has a diverse palate of skills and experiences to bring to the table, and that’s an amazing thing.”