Powell Street Festival telethon takes intersectional importance to the internet

SFU alumni and festival volunteer Erica Isomura talks digital festival and Indigenous allyship

This year’s Powell Street Festival may be digital but is still packed with events. Courtesy of Powell Street Festival

By: Madeleine Chan, Staff Writer

Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival has been happening yearly since 1977 in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and like many events, a pandemic isn’t stopping it this year. The festival will virtually kick-off on August 1 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. with live performances, and the addition of a telethon. 100% of the money raised will go to their new PowellStFest Community Kitchen program which will cook “200 meals for the unhoused and precariously housed in the DTES” every week. 

According to the Powell Street Festival website, it aims to celebrate Japanese Canadian history by showcasing Japanese Canadian artists, performers, and culture while engaging “the broader community through fun cultural activities.” They also do this throughout the year with events like the Hanami Cherry Blossom picnic and other community outreach initiatives. Their hope is to keep people aware of the continuing history of both Japanese Canadian and Indigenous displacement and to be “accountable as settler-colonizers.”

I had a chance to talk to SFU Writer’s Studio alumni and long-time Powell Street Festival volunteer Erica Isomura about the festival’s new format and the importance of demonstrating intersectionality.

The Peak: What is the Powell Street Festival telethon?

Erica Isomura: To give some context, Powell Street Festival has been happening at Oppenheimer Park in the DTES in what used to be known as quite a large Japanese Canadian community and neighbourhood, before the second World War and Japanese Canadian internment took place. So 44 years ago, the festival started at that park and it’s basically happened at Oppenheimer every year since then — except for years when we’ve moved to the street in solidarity with tent cities. This year, we are pivoting to a telethon in light of what’s happening with [COVID-19]. 

We’re raising funds for a new program that we’re going to be running in the fall called the PowellStFest Community Kitchen, which is going to be part of a broader community kitchen network in the DTES. [This] is supposed to plug into the existing programming that is happening but also recognize that a lot of the emergency funding that has been going to the neighbourhood because of [COVID-19] is running out. So the idea with the telethon is to raise money for more sustained programs year-round.

P: Why do you think the Powell Street Festival is important to hold this year, even though it’s all virtual?

EI: I think what I really like about the festival is that it really brings the community together in a way. The Japanese Canadian community is pretty dispersed in terms of not really having a centralized neighbourhood. I personally didn’t grow up with a lot of community outside of family, so it’s been really nice to connect to this festival that’s been around for so long and that has been a really great space for me to learn and connect with elders and with other older artists. It’s a legacy of the community. I feel like as an arts and cultural space to also be progressive and be aware of our community’s history and bring those values into the present is really important. 

But as a festival, even if you’re not political, it’s so inclusive and really has something for everyone, there’s really nothing like it. I just really appreciate what it offers. There’s so much joy. To be able to have it online I think is great in terms of being able to still build more connection in a time when people are isolated. Especially generationally isolated with [COVID-19], not being able to connect with lots of older people who are maybe immunocompromised. It’s just cool to see what people are going to be able to offer back through the program but also what people can connect to from home.”

P: Why do you think it’s important to demonstrate intersectionality and allyship with Indigenous communities and sovereignty?

EI: Obviously with what’s happening in the world, with so much light being shed on systemic racism and police brutality, it has really [highlighted] how many issues exist in our present day society that a lot of people have been talking about for many years. 

I think for organizations and  communities to show up and, to show solidarity is so much more, I don’t know if the word is empowering. But I think it can be really hard as an individual person who wants to make change without support from others. To be able to be in conversation with other people and learn alongside other people and learn across generations are things I really appreciate. As an accessible and family friendly festival, to be able to bring these values to the festival and try and encourage people who might not otherwise be thinking about some of these things in this way is impactful. 

We should be in this together to be making change and to create a better world than what we’re living in right now.

Check out the festival and donate to support the new PowellStFest Community Kitchen program at www.powellstreetfestival.com.