catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 11 :: 2003.05.23 — 2003.06.05


Overcoming differences with a universal language

This year will mark the 10th Anniversary of HarmonyFest, a unique day-long music festival held in the small town of Three Rivers, Michigan. What makes this music festival so unique is its main purpose, which is to draw together a rather diverse community with the universal language of music.

Every Sunday of Labor Day weekend for the past 10 years, this small community of approximately 8,500 people has closed its downtown business district to traffic, in order that its residents might come together, laugh together, dance together, and share in the common bonds of fellowship. Diversity is the order of the day, with musical expressions that range from country and blue grass to jazz and blues. The festival has grown from its humble beginnings, when approximately 800 area residents attended to last year, which drew nearly 4,000 people. HarmonyFest is a free music festival, thanks to the support of area businesses and individuals and a city government that understands the importance of bridging racial and socio-economic barriers. However, the community of Three Rivers has not always been like this.

Back in 1992 the city’s governing body took action to re-establish a Human Relations Commission, in order to diffuse racial tensions that had plagued the community for much of its history. With a significant African-American population and growing Latino and Asian populations, Three Rivers had been experiencing what many large cities have had to face—unfair housing practices, prejudice in the workplace, and high crime and violence. The rivers and railroad tracks that run through the town had created both natural and manmade barriers that kept people segregated.

The role of the Human Relations Commission was simple—to serve as a buffer between angry residents and city government. The HRC was given the power to investigate allegations of discrimination and racism. And although much of their early years were spent doing just that, its members also felt the need to be proactive. They held anti-racism workshops, explored what other communities were doing to combat discrimination, and out of their meetings and discussions were planted the seeds for HarmonyFest.

Three Rivers is a much different community today. There is more of a racial balance within the city government, fair housing practices are being observed, new businesses and industries have established themselves in the city, a new high school has been built, and the crime rate has decreased significantly.

This year’s HarmonyFest will once again take place in downtown Three Rivers on Sunday, August 31, from 1:00 – 11:00 p.m. The tentative lineup of musical styles includes gospel, blue grass, rock & roll, jazz and blues. There will be a “Kids’ Fest” for area youth that will include face painting, games, and other activities. The festival is alcohol free and individuals are encouraged to bring a lawn chair with them to sit in. There is always plenty of dancing down front near the stage, and of course a wide variety of folks who come together and get to know each other just a little bit better.

Matthew D. Deames served on the Three Rivers Human Relations Commission from 1992 – 1998. He’s currently an interim pastor with the Evanglical Lutheran Church in America. 

Discussion topic: Bridging racial gaps

Three Rivers developed one creative way to address the problem of local segregation. What other creative ideas have you heard of that address the same issue?

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