Boris Ozuna, the new director of Harrisonburg’s International Festival, got his first taste of community organizing as a child in Sincelejo, Colombia. His mother was involved in justice work with the group that would become Sembrandopaz, a regional peacebuilding and human development organization now led by Ricardo Esquivia, one of the original strategic planners for Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
Ozuna, who immigrated to the United States to study peace and development at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), honors his origins in his new role with the festival, slated for Saturday, Sept. 26, at Hillandale Park.
“What better way to help build bridges than organizing this event?” he says. “The festival is like a big wedding … where the whole town decides to get married.”
From Colombia to The Fairfield Center
Ozuna shares a similar background with many of Harrisonburg’s expatriate residents, who have fled war, famine, political or religious persecution.
“Colombia has been at war,” says Ozuna. This background prompted him to think about building peace and local initiatives in his hometown, which led him to EMU and, after graduation, to three years of working for literacy and homeless centers in Washington D.C. Last summer, he and his wife returned to Harrisonburg to be near family and continue his education at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
Shortly after his return, he was hired by The Fairfield Center to take over for Vaunda Brown, who had directed the festival for 17 years.
Ozuna’s background as an immigrant gives him insight into coordinating the various cultural groups participating in the festival. While the community was “open and responsive” when he first came to Harrisonburg, he found it difficult to identify his role here. That is something he hopes to provide through the festival – roles in which people can be helpful and connected, and still celebrate their separate identities.
Identity is enriched by cultural engagement
“Differences can either threaten us or awaken curiosity,” says Ozuna. Ideally, he says, by engaging with other cultures, our own identity is enriched and strengthened.
Ozuna stresses the importance of valuing people’s identities and backgrounds while inviting them to join a larger network. Eighteen years ago, the festival was started as a reconciliation effort to promote tolerance within the community. “We invite people to bring and share [cultural] symbols that help them to celebrate with and respect others.”
During the day-long free event, attendees will encounter a reggae band, Aztec dancers honoring the earth, a global fashion show, local artists, and different kinds of food, among “many other surprises,” he said.
Ozuna hopes this will be a “joyful experience” for both educating and forming relationships throughout the community. The new director is “mostly open to learning from the festival this year … and building a good experience with the people who have made the festival happen these last 18 years.”
EMU is both a sponsor of the event and a contributor. Matthew Freed, recycling crew leader, explains that his department has donated the use of recycling bicycles for about eight years. Members of the Earthkeepers Clubtypically volunteer to collect and sort recyclable materials at the event.
“It is a beautiful festival,” says Freed. “Harrisonburg is a diverse city to begin with, so having a festival celebrating the different cultures within Harrisonburg is a great idea. It is a great learning experience and eye-opening to see all the different backgrounds folks have from the community.”