As the Philanthropy Journal begins a new cycle on our editorial calendar, we will periodically republish articles from our archive. Please enjoy this piece on Local Colors of Western Virginia from December 2015.
By Charlena Wynn
As communities across the country experience population growth, miscommunication and conflict can arise due to cultural misunderstanding. The influx of new cultures can be extremely positive in reshaping the identity of a community once space for compromise and communication is created. Local Colors of Western Virginia, a Roanoke-based nonprofit, saw firsthand how their community was reshaped due to a rise in diversity. Local Colors considers itself the “oil that decreases friction by changing the face of the community,” often acting as mediator between groups. In order to see those positive outcomes from diversity, founder Pearl Fu wanted to create a space that addressed the change and worked with new members of the community. Through various educational avenues, Local Colors has enabled partnerships and created a culture of civic responsibility to reduce conflict and cultural mistrust.
During its first cultural celebration, Local Colors showcased the vibrancy of China, Kenya, Korea, and Russia and 25 years later there are over 100 ethnic heritages represented at the annual festival. “Within 25 years, Roanoke has become increasingly more diverse due to the Refugee Resettlement program administered by Commonwealth Catholic Charities, immigrants and refugees who relocate from other parts of the country and its commitment of the community to be welcoming,” states Beth Lutjen, Executive Director and Director of the Refugee Resettlement program. With this increase in cultural diversity, Local Colors became a space to advocate for understanding.
While Local Colors may not be what one would expect of a crime or legal related nonprofit, its programming has been helpful in reducing tensions between law enforcement and immigrants. Approached by Roanoke local police to address concerns of communities with high density of refugees and immigrants, Lutjen began to work with the police academy and continues to give an overview of the refugee program and the cultures that live within Roanoke. “Sometimes these conflicts between neighbors or a group of new arrival that were not understanding rules, laws, and social norms,” says Lutjen. Cultural competency and awareness training is available to the police and any group that is interested. By sharing anecdotes, Beth has been able to help people relate on a human level while still recognizing and celebrating their differences.
To help make those human connections with others, The Local Colors annual festival does not draw on political or religious doctrines but rather focuses on food, dance, music, arts and crafts, and traditional dress and customs. “We remind those of us who have a family history in the United States for many generations that we came from very different cultures too.” These human connections not only help build community but lower conflict. The nonprofit prioritizes local performers and authentic local food vendors in an effort to support members of their community and allow individuals to participate in uplifting their community. Local Colors recognizes how globalization has made it easier to connect with individuals thousands of miles away therefore creating a safe space for interaction is important to a healthy community. Roanoke achieved the status of the most “Welcoming Community” in early 2015 from the national “Welcoming Communities” initiative due to Local Colors efforts to support diversity particularly in the case of immigrant populations settling into the city.
Local Colors’ focus on arts and culture has contributed to a rise in attraction to Roanoke as many looking for a “smaller community that offers a global experience.” Children of Roanoke, are able to experience the world in their hometown. Connecting with the diversity of the community has been key in ensuring Roanoke remains a safe space for newcomers. Local Colors recognizes the fluidity of community and integrates programming that reflects the changes as seen with the work with the police academy in regards to rising international population. Due to the success of the Local Colors annual festival, other independent festivals have developed including annual Latino, Greek, Indian, Lebanese, and Syrian festivals – all of which support Local Colors mission and the economy of the Roanoke Valley.
Beth keeps in mind that the world is changing each day. “If we keep our services and programs the same we will not be meeting the needs of the community today and tomorrow.” Utilizing partnerships within the community and the knowledge a community has leads to a more meaningful presence in the lives nonprofits serve. “Don’t short change yourself by keeping your circle too small and repetitive,” says Lutjen. Creating a culture of civic responsibility and awareness of difference has ensured that Local Colors and Roanoke continue to be a safe, welcoming space for all.
Local Colors of Western Virginia is a 501 (c) 3 agency with a 25-year history of celebrating the ethnic diversity of our community and providing multicultural understanding through education, services, and events.
Charlena Wynn is currently pursuing her Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies at NC State University with a concentration in examining the construction of Blackness in contemporary United States museums.