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Paynesville Press - October 20, 2004

City receives statewide award for ethnic festival

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

The city of Paynesville was recently honored by the League of Minnesota Cities for its Festival of Ethnic Traditions.

A statewide award, for land use and community involvement in a city of less than 10,000, was presented to mayor Jeff Thompson at a recent convention of the organization. Thompson nominated the event for the award because he felt it was time the Paynesville Human Rights Commission deserved some recognition for a job well-done.

The Festival of Ethnic Traditions is a one-day event, sponsored by the human rights commission, that celebrates diversity. During the festival, people of different nationalities and races demonstrate what makes them unique through dance, food, and demonstrations of cultural traditions.

According to Sig Pfeifer, chairman of the human rights commission, the event isn't solely for entertainment. It's an educational tool that the community can use to help residents welcome diversity. It's a way for people to realize that sometimes other people may look different or sound different, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

ethnic festival Former mayor Joe Voss, who started the human rights commission in Paynesville in 1995, agreed. The ethnic festival is a way to make people aware of other ethnicities, he said. It's a way for the community to be proactive instead of reactive, he added.

A Hmong Dancer entertains the audience at the 2004 Festival of Ethnic Traditions in Paynesville. The city's ethnic festival was recently honored with a statewide award from the League of Minnesota Cities.

Eventually people of other races and cultures will move to Paynesville, he said. He wants those people to be welcomed instead of shunned because they are different.

"We all have prejudices," Voss said. "How we react to them is what's important."

Voss, who co-chaired the 2004 festival, was instrumental in starting the festival in 2001 after visiting an ethnic festival in Pelican Rapids.

The first festival was held at the grounds of the Paynesville Historical Museum in August 2001, and the weather was terrible, Voss said. In spite of a cold wind, about 500 people - many wrapped in blankets - attended to enjoy the ethnic food, music, and dancing, he said.

After the second year, organizers realized the festival was growing fast, so they moved it to the athletic fields at Paynesville Area High School in order to have more space and more parking.

This year's festival featured cultural music and dance including Mexican dancing, Scandinavian music, and German/Swiss music. Ethnicities featured for the first time this year included the Chinese lion dance, Japanese drumming, Polish dancing, and Hmong dancing. Attendees were also treated to a variety of ethnic foods prepared by local organizations.

In all, more than 1,200 people attended, estimated Stephanie Malingen, who co-chaired the 2004 event and will chair the 2005 event, despite not being on the commission.

Malingen thinks receiving the award is awesome. She appreciates Thompson for the nomination.

"It's tremendous," said Voss of the award. Usually Voss is skeptical of awards, he said, but he believes this award is genuine. "We're reaching a lot of people," he said.

"It's nice to hear kudos," agreed Pfeifer. "This award is for the community, not just the commission," he added.

Neither the Festival of Ethnic Traditions nor the award would be possible without the work of human rights commission members: Jackie Campbell, who represents the Paynesville Area Schools; Rev. Doris Dodds, who recently replaced Pastor Ric Koehn as the ministerial representative; officer Chuck Buggs, who represents the Paynesville Police Department; Thompson, who recently replaced council member Jean Soine as the city council's representative; and three at-large members, Pfeifer, Maria Thompson, and Voss. In addition, two PAHS students - junior Maggie Frieler and senior Stacy Lahr - represent area students on the commission.

The broad range of ages and backgrounds of the commission members and festival organizers has been key to the success of the commission and the ethnic festival, said Voss.

One of the highlights of receiving the award is being a model for other communities, according to Jeff Thompson. He was very pleased when, after the award ceremony, a member of the Duluth City Council approached him to ask for tips on how the much larger city could start their own festival.

"It's gratifying that we can be a model to someone," Voss agreed.

Paynesville's Festival of Ethnic Traditions is held on the first Sunday of August at the PAHS athletic fields. Planning has already begun on the 2005 festival, said Malingen. It will feature a lot of favorite performers and a few new additions, she said. In addition, she hopes the 2005 can feature more ethnic foods than in the past.

From now on, Thompson will refer to the festival as the "award winning Festival of Ethnic Traditions."

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