News & Updates

Festival blends arts and culture to promote racial harmony

Posted on June 28th, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Festival blends arts and culture to promote racial harmony

EDINBORO, Pa. – A colorful festival celebrating the region’s diversity is headed back to downtown Erie on July 13.

AmeriMasala, which returned to Erie last year after a 12-year hiatus, features giant puppets, musical performers representing multiple genres, foods from a variety of cultures and an eclectic parade. 

The term is actually a portmanteau combining “American” and “masala,” which is a blend of spices. 

But to organizer Lynn Johnson, the true meaning extends beyond a single term or event. 

“AmeriMasala is not simply a word or just a festival,” said Johnson, a 1983 graduate of Edinboro University with a bachelor’s degree in art. “It is a movement that emphasizes community and promotes the value and nobility of all people.” 

Opening festivities will begin at 11 a.m. in Perry Square, highlighted with an appearance by Townawanda Seneca spiritual leader Leon Sam Briggs. His traditional blessing, known as a “smudging,” will set the stage for the vibrant UnoWE Parade. The parade was inspired by the tradition of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Parade the Circle” event, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary of featuring bright costumes, unique floats, giant puppets, stilt dancers and handmade masks. 

All of these features will be included in the UnoWE Parade, as participants will lead a procession along State Street, between Perry Square and the Erie Art Museum. The parade features costumes and musical styles from around the world, headlined by Batalá New York, an all-female Afro-Brazilian samba reggae percussion band. 

Those attending the festivities will also be able to enjoy a variety of foods, as the festival will feature various ethnic cuisines and an array of vendors and food trucks. 

Although Johnson is the driving force behind AmeriMasala, he says that Margarita Dangel, neighborhood manager with the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Network, provided him with significant assistance in reintroducing the festival to Erie last year.

This year, Johnson and Dangel are spreading the word through Edinboro University’s Center for Branding and Strategic Communication, part of the NWPA Innovation Beehive Network, a grant-funded collaboration between Edinboro, Gannon and Mercyhurst universities, Penn State Behrend, and the Erie County Public Library. The collaboration typically focuses on regional business development and expansion, but is expanding its focus to help promote AmeriMasala. 

“I think that Lynn’s efforts to use arts and culture as a way to promote racial harmony and inclusion positively reflects Erie’s image as a great place to live and work, which has an obvious impact on community and economic development,” said Dr. Tony Peyronel, executive director of entrepreneurial development at Edinboro. 

Edinboro faculty and students have developed branding materials for AmeriMasala and are helping Johnson with media relations, social media management and enhanced promotion within the regional arts and culture community. They also plan to help at the grassroots level, traversing the region to hang fliers and help build enthusiasm by word of mouth. 

Johnson’s enthusiasm for the festival in contagious, and he is happy to have some help in getting others excited about AmeriMasala, primarily because of the significance of the message.

“We need to turn people out for this event because the whole point is overcoming differences and bringing diverse backgrounds together,” Johnson says. “I’ve said many times that I want to see a Black family and a White family run into each other at a craft store because they are both working on a float or a giant puppet. That is really what we are aiming for.” 

For a complete schedule of activities, including recently added musical acts, visit the AmeriMasala event page on Facebook. 

For information on the work of Edinboro’s Center for Branding and Strategic Communication, contact Peyronel at (814) 732-2166 or apeyronel@edinboro.edu.