Tranquil excitement, an exotic assortment of colors, and upbeat music greets my senses as I walk through downtown Jackson. I can't make out the words of the deep melody that I hear, but it reminds me of the Turkish music so dear to my heart. Walking through the streets of East Main and Highland, I feel more like I am back in Mexico City or Istanbul rather than West Tennessee. A growing crowd of people surrounds me, many adorned in colorful dress, their voices filling the air with various languages. I witness smiles shared between old friends, joyous congregating of families, and the hope that comes when new relationships are formed. There is an atmosphere of wholeness in that place, the likes of which I have rarely experienced.
On October 3, 2015, Jackson held its second Annual International Food and Art Festival. It was an all-day affair, and citizens from across Jackson and Madison County filled the downtown area. At noon, over thirty cultures marched through the streets in the Parade of Nations. These citizens of Jackson—of the world—proudly carried their flags and their heritage with them. Some of the representatives have lived in Jackson for their entire lives; others arrived only last month. Upon reaching City Hall, each group had the opportunity to give a performance or presentation: Columbia danced with passion, South Korea provided a martial arts demonstration, and Ethiopia (represented by one family) had really cute kids. (We love you, Pepo!)
In addition to the parade, each group shared other elements of their culture. Food from every corner of the globe adorned the tables. (Where else but the Jackson International Food and Art Fair would I be able to enjoy tamales from Mexico, baklava from Syria, and kimchi from Korea all in one day?) When the volunteers at the booths weren’t serving their wares to the people lined up for a taste, they were eager to share the significance of the artwork, artifacts, maps, and other interactive materials also at the booth tables. Across the street, Jackson State Community College had provided a space for cultural storytelling and people took turns reading the stories which had been passed down to them.
At one booth I had my name written in Japanese. At another I was guided through rooms filled with Indian artifacts and patiently taught some geography and history of India. One of the volunteers at this booth was Arunn, an immigrant from Tamil Nadu, India. He told me with hope, “I’m sure a lot of people will go back with a little more knowledge about other cultures.” He and his friend Murali (also from India) shared with me that they never would have met had they stayed in India because they were from different states. From their perspective, they had to come all the way to Jackson in order to become friends.
Now in its second year, the Jackson International Food and Art Festival is organized by the Citizen’s Commission on Unity, a group establish in 2013 with the help of Mayor Jerry Gist. Mayor Gist was among those who spoke at the festival, thanking the community for its support of the event and urging us to unity. Other speakers included Mayor Jimmy Harris of Madison County, Joel Newman (Director of the West Tennessee Business Resource Center), and Co-Chairs of the Commission, Dr. Sandra Dee and Eduardo Morales—as well as prominent members of several Jackson businesses. New to this year’s festival were representatives from the Jackson Fire Department and Police Department, who who came to promote awareness of Jackson’s public services.
The festival was also the opening event for Jackson’s three-month-long Season of Unity. In the words of Dr. Jean Marie Walls, a community partner for event, the Season of Unity was a “grassroots initiative” and a “project that grew organically from the community to promote unity.” I also had the pleasure of spending a few minutes with the Co-Chairs of the Commission, and it was energizing to see the passion these two have in roles as leaders in the community. Dr. Dee and Morales are giving a voice to the international community in Jackson, and their words are worth attending to. In her speech, Dr. Dee testified, “This has been an enriching experience for me, to see this festival grow in its second year. It also gave me the chance to meet interesting people, build long-lasting friendships, and learn more about the City of Jackson.”
Both Dr. Dee and Morales admitted that while they had not known each other before working on the Citizen’s Commission on Unity, they are grateful to help each other in community and to know each other now; their friendship has grown even to the point having a family celebration in one another’s homes over the holidays. Dr. Dee emphasised their purpose in forming the Commission is to embrace all cultures, to educate the community, and to exercise tolerance toward one another. Morales acknowledged that while hurt often comes because of miscommunication between people groups, “For this day, there is a lot of hope.” It was an honor to witness these dedicated community members at work, and it was impossible to walk away from them without a feeling of hope for the future of Jackson. Dr. Walls had also commented on her involvement in the festival, “It’s changed the way I feel about Jackson, and I’ve been here twenty-eight years!”
After such a glorious example of the unity that comes when people understand and care for their neighbors, I walked away with a greater awareness of the diversity in Jackson and of the role that I can play in building relationships: being attentive to the voices in my community. However, upon leaving the square, I couldn’t help but wonder what the long-lasting effects of the festival would be. As I turned the corner to head home and the music faded from my ears, I passed a man and his young daughter. The pair had just noticed the flags outside City Hall, prompting the father to ask his child, “Do you know what those flags are for?” The girl smiled and began to listen as her father taught her about how the nations are uniting here in Jackson, Tennessee.
Kimberly Chavers is originally from Alabama but has lived all across the Southeast. Currently she is a student at Union University studying Intercultural Studies and Teaching English as a Second Language.
Originally from the Chicago area, Melissa Hardman came to Jackson to study Linguistics at Union University and plans to graduate in spring of 2016. She hopes to teach English or work with humanitarian aid organizations one day.
Photographer Hannah Russell grew up in Eastern Europe and has made Jackson her new home. She is a recent Union University graduate and works for Lane College as a photographer.