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The Power of Community Festivals

A little more than two years ago, Heidi Jackson took over the helm of the City of Seattle's Festál Program. For 25 years, Festál has helped individual community organizations stage cultural festivals at the venerable Seattle Center. Northwest residents with roots in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as Indigenous people celebrate their heritage with arts, food, and more throughout the span of the festival.

Heidi Jackson shares the story of Festál, and her own journey to an "artist-adjacent" life with co-hosts Vivian Phillips and Marcie Sillman. For Jackson, creativity is essential.

"Having an opportunity to engage with an artistic practice is probably the healthiest existence you can have."--Heidi Jackson

Freckled African-American woman with short curly hair, in a white top and black pants stands in front of a sign for the cultural festival, Festál
Manager of Cultural Programs at Seattle Center, Heidi Jackson



Heidi Jackson (she/her) joined Seattle Center as Managing Artistic Director of Cultural Programs in 2020. She is a mixed-race African-American with roots in Minneapolis and NYC who has raised two children in Seattle’s Central District. Mentored early in her career by the revolutionary musical pioneer, Max Roach, she’s forged a blessed 30-year path as an arts administrator collaborating with world-renowned and emerging artists; grassroots and non-profit organizations; and corporate and government arts Institutions facilitating creative programs, events, and initiatives with an emphasis on social justice and anti-racism. The impact of her work can be experienced locally through 4Culture programs (Community 4Culture, Building for Equity); community cultural spaces (Washington Hall); and a myriad of artistic efforts/events that center Black and Brown creatives. Heidi contributes to several Boards including Creative Justice, Seattle Arts & Culture for Anti-Racism (SACA), and the Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party Legacy Committee. She is driven by the desire to manifest a world where the trauma of imperialism can heal, and all human life is treasured. Art and Culture are core in her toolbox.




Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips


And I'm Marcie Sillman. And, and this is doubleXposure.


DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plum the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


Today, we're going to explore the transformational power of community cultural festivals.


Hey Marcie, how are you?


I'm doing well, Vivian, really nice to see your face, even if it's electronically represented on my computer and not in real life.


It is so nice to see your face as well. And we had a chance to spend some time, uh, together in person as we were visiting some of our favorite arts communities, including the waterfront and Seattle Center. And it's just really nice to be now in the middle of summer, even though the traditional warmth of summer seems to be alluding us a little bit.


But we've had some sunshine and I happen to see something that you posted about big celebration of Juneteenth at Midtown Center, which is where ARTE NOIR, your, your big enterprise is gonna open.


Yeah. There was actually a program on Sunday, June 19th for Juneteenth, and it was actually the brainchild and the work of Donna Moodie, who is the Executive Director of the EcoDistrict. And it brought out 25 vendors, um, included, uh, DJ's Larry Mizell and DJ Riz from K E X P radio, and was really kind of a, just a really cool community gathering. There were people of all persuasions I'll say, and that, I mean, ethnically demographically, lots of kids, a lot of dogs <laugh>, I've realized lately that, you know, having a dog is like the new thing apparently, but, uh, a lot of beautiful animals and their owners out, and everybody was eating like Ma & Pops Popsicles, and lots of good food and purchasing cool items, everything from soap and candles to clothing, it was a lot of fun.


It's one of the really wonderful things about summer. Every neighborhood in the city has some sort of celebration. But the thing that has really struck me is that those community celebrations are beyond the communities now. And a lot of that is because of a program that's been at Seattle Center for a quarter of a century, the Festál program. Right?


Right. And Festál is, as we learn from Heidi Jackson, they are ethnic community festivals that happen at Seattle Center or over the past couple of years, they have been virtual. So one of the virtual programs that I really, really enjoyed was, uh, the Spirit of West Africa that happened, I think, is like in the spring and the person that does that festival is Thione Diop. And he was actually in Dakar and had all of his, you know, musical community and dancers and they all performed. And we got a chance to be a part of that virtually. So, you know, it, it, it's this cool, cool festival that has really served to enhance our ability to connect with a number of different ethnicities, share their culture and experience that all together at Seattle Center.


I think as you and I speak, they just had the Iranian Festival. I believe that's what happened this last weekend. And so we're really talking about the many, many ethnic and demographic and immigrant communities that live not just in Seattle, but in King County because the Seattle Center, well “Seattle's Living Room,” really welcomes people from throughout the region.


Heidi is relatively new to this position at Seattle Center. And we talked a bit about how for 20 years, I think it was Steve Sneed served in the position that Heidi served in and how the connection that Steve had to Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and that connection that Heidi also had there. And they've taken what they created in many ways around bringing community together and made that an asset for the entire city and how beautiful that is. Festál started in 1997 and celebrating 25 years this year. And I think it's appropriate to lift the name of Steve, Steve, whose job it was before you got there. But, um, who I think was responsible for a lot of the evolution in the way that festal actually interacts with communities. So talk a little bit about how you have been engaged with Festál. I think over the course of maybe not 25 years and how you see the changes that have taken place to this day and how change may occur in the future. It's kind of a three-tiered question there, but I'm really curious about where from where you sit.


I would start by just saying, you know, his Festál was still a new program and I believe Virginia Anderson sort of found him and recruited him to come and, and take things over. Anybody that knows Steve or has worked with Steve just understands like what a magnanimous person he is. He's just, he comes from a theater background. So he has this command of space and a charisma and a very powerful way of communicating with people. And he's just very lovable. Also he's a kind person and a compassionate person and had just the right personality to serve that, that role between institution and community, government institutions are challenging. Even if you're just trying to pay a, an electric bill. There's like a lot of things, problems that people have interfacing with with government institutions. So when you're talking about doing programming, that's generated by communities, it requires some extra finesse or people aren't gonna wanna participate.


And Steve was really great at recognizing how to create easier access to the resources for the communities that produce the Festál events. Anyone who's done events in community knows that community comes together and gets things done, and it can be real scrappy, but we get it done. And the institution has these processes, and this is all of the ways that you're supposed to do things. And when you're dealing with a diversity of communities everyone's needs are not the same. You're not gonna have the same approaches, the same interests, the same priorities it's gonna range across the board. And if you can't have some flexibility in the process, a program like Festál, that's focused on engaging with so many different communities is not gonna succeed. So he did a really great job of trying to get the institution to bend a little bit and become a little bit more flexible.


It sounds like Seattle Center then, and your position at Festál is really one where it has evolved from being a facilitator for space to now really creating long term relationships that are transformational, as opposed to transactional.


We're in the process of still moving to that space where it is transformational. And we have the opportunity to really push that bar, I think, through a program like Festál, but it also, there's always this possibility of settling into what's easy. You know, Seattle Center is proud of what Festál is as a program. The city of Seattle is really excited to have something like this that they can tout as...


It's kind of a poster child for a community building, right. Are there 27 festivals?


There are 24 festivals that are part of the Festál series and then Folklife is one of those which represents a myriad of communities, of course.


And what is the process for a community to become a part of Festál? How, how does that work?


So traditionally the process was simply people coming to Seattle Center and expressing an interest. And then the second part of the process, once you get kind of through that initial paperwork and red tape, and bureaucracy was a, an incubation phase where the producers of that event would be required for several years to participate in the festival coalition, come to the meetings, learn from example and seeing what the other communities were doing and learning to, you know, deepen their understanding of what producing of Festál event would be. Each of those festivals really has their own approach. And it's based on what the community's interests are and how much capacity they have, or how many, how, how big they want it to be. Some of the communities enjoy kind of keeping it small and intimate. Some of them really like becoming very expansive and trying to engage more broadly as many people as they can. And some of them are actually like the API Heritage Month Celebration. That's, you're dealing again with multiple communities, French Fest is a, a Francophone festival. It's celebrating the French language.


Heidi. You mention that every community comes in a different way and that some people are coming from community-based festivals. And that was one of the things I was thinking about that there are a lot of community-based groups. And I'm wondering what it either adds or changes when a festival is at a, a municipal location like Seattle Center, as opposed to based in their own community.


Yeah, that is interesting. Actually, we did a bit of interviewing with some of the festival producers at the beginning of the pandemic around that very topic. And it was really interesting how each festival valued the opportunity to showcase their cultural traditions in front of people outside of their communities. I think that is sort of one common denominator amongst all of the festivals that do their presentations at Seattle Center. And there's different reasons behind that, but some of it's logistical around just being sort of in the center of the city and having the opportunity for more people to, you know, witnessing their performances and presentations. Some of it's economic, most of the festivals have a vendor marketplace, and it's an opportunity. You know, the more people you have coming through, the more opportunity it is for their artists and vendors and their cultural vendors to actually sell some goods. But there's also this sense of multi-generational pride. Being able to come together as a community and just celebrate and to do that in a public space where people are witnessing it. I think there's something there that is very powerful, that people are, are drawn to.


You know, part of it feels to me a little bit like Festál becomes, and, and I know this is not why people do it, and I'm just struggling for it better way to say it, but it's almost this rite of passage or stamp of approval if you will. But I'm wondering how you see that involvement in Festál, by community groups and organizations. How does that in turn, benefit the neighborhoods and communities in their home places?


You know, over 40% of the people that pass through Seattle Center are so are like from King County. So there's definitely a regional impact with being able to connect to the broader community of people, specifically because Seattle has become so cost prohibitive. A lot of communities are not living in Seattle. They're further out in King County. Some communities have settled outside of Seattle. That's where the density of their populations are. Something that I've discovered in this job and other work I've done before in Seattle and in the region is that even when a community is based outside of the city of Seattle, because Seattle has such prominence and is seen as such an important part of the region, people wanna have representation. They want a place where their community can gather and celebrate and where they're seen and where there's deeper understanding. That's built with folks who are from outside of that community. So I think it, it helps build community around that excitement, for sure.


You know, you mention that there are 24 festivals and the majority of those are all volunteer run. And, um, I remember having conversations with about 13, uh, Festál groups a couple years ago when we were doing the Creative Economy Survey for the City of Seattle. And that was the number one challenge that each festival mentioned, the fact that they are all volunteer run and that there is no dedicated, so to speak resources for them. Of course, Seattle center provides equipment, a stage, marketing and those kinds of things. But do you ever see a time when there might possibly be some dedicated kind of, uh, resources for community festivals to actually hire festival coordinators?


It is what I hope that by the time I leave this job, that's the legacy. I started this position at the beginning of the pandemic. And, um, it became very, very clear. The disparity, you know, we, as a coalition met and people wanted to still find ways to gather their community. And we were like, well, let's figure out how to do it online. We were all getting paid by our jobs, you know, internally to do this work. And they were still that volunteering to do. And it was hard. I don't anybody who's, who did online events knew in the last couple years can understand that it's, it's a lot of work. If you're not familiar with how to approach it, you're learning from scratch. There's a lot of technical pieces that can go south on you when you're like people quickly gave up the whole idea of like live streaming was just, and so within our office, it's, there's two of us on my team. And, you know, we’ve talked a lot about how it just almost seemed unfair to have a, a job where we're getting paid to help them produce their events, but they're not getting paid. And also there's not money to pay the artists or there's not money to pay the presenters. So I would love to see the city pay a position for each festival to have a coordinator.


We're talking so much about these communities coming to the Festál to program, to be showcased, to spread their cultures, to share their cultures. And I, I wanna just step back a little bit and talk about Seattle Center as a cultural destination years ago, Virginia Anderson called the center “Seattle's Living Room.” And I think that one of the things that we've been thinking at doubleXposure, Vivian and I is what the role of a municipal destination like the center means for the city in general. Why is it important to have a cultural destination, a cultural center that is all of ours?


So I think having at the center of the city, a place where people will experience, not just one version of culture, but many versions of culture and the culture of the people that are living there. Um, I think that that every city should have that. We live in a society that has put one version of culture out there as “supreme” over others. And many of us are actively working to dismantle that, you know, arts and culture are an expression of our humanness. And it's it's, that is where we connect with each other and find commonalities. It changes the way people can think about things. I get a tickled watching people come into the armory, not having any idea that there's a cultural festival happening, and then having an opportunity to eat some food they've never eaten before, hear some music or see some dance that they've never seen or heard before. Those are all these accidental experiences that create deeper kind of people.


It's really interesting too, because the less diverse Seattle becomes, it feels like it's more and more important to have this opportunity to support, gather, and honor people who really were responsible for building the overall culture.


Our conversation with Heidi Jackson continues in just a minute.


Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON, cultivating black brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.


Heidi, you come to Seattle, you've been here for a while, but you came from the East Coast with a lot of experience and a different kind of arts management. If you will. I'm just curious about what it is that keeps you working in this field. You know, you talked about taking this job right at the beginning of the pandemic. I can't imagine what that was like, but what is it, what draws you to it and what keeps you wanting to do this kind of work?


I think for me personally, it's about being a part of something that's bigger than me as an individual. You know, I grew up in a household that was very creative. My mom was a music teacher. I have a lot of siblings and I have a lots of memories of being young and just, you know, one of my oldest sisters would make a play and direct it. And we would just <laugh> we like make costumes and just right in our living room, I feel like creativity is so essential. And it's the older I got the harder, it was to keep a connection to that access except for through music. So I studied music formally and actually studied it, um, in college, but I never actually really wanted to be a professional musician. I never really enjoyed going on stage and performing. I loved playing the piano, but I was shy. I didn't like getting up in front of audiences and putting myself out there like that. And then in college I had the opportunity to, to meet and start to work with some of the most inspired musicians to walk the planet. And that is like, this is what I wanna do is be the support staff to that kind of art <laugh> cuz that is way better than anything that I can do. <laugh> and also like there's a value in that.


I think it's wonderful when someone who has an artistic grounding and also theoretically right, as well as practically, but then they decide that the better place for them is to be a support person.


Well, and I got hired. My first job in arts administration was being hired by Max Roach. The, you know, one of the innovators of Bebop music and, you know, I was an organizer on my campus and we brought him to our campus for Black History Month project. And he was there for a few, like a number of days. And I was in charge of all that. And he's like, you know, we need people like you in this field as administrators because you understand what it means to be an artist. And you care about the artist. He's like, I can tell cuz you're treating me like a king right now and that doesn't happen. You know? And people will fly me halfway across the world and put me in a crappy hotel. He's like, you got me and staying in a mansion and driving me around in limousines. And I, that meant a lot to me as a young organizer. And, and it helped me to recognize that, that these roles that we play behind the scenes to help the artists that are really doing that work on the stage, that impacts millions of people all over the planet. Like that's important work. And I had actually just not even understood that until I had an opportunity to, to step into it. So I keep going with it because it's always fed my spirit in ways that I don't know any other kind of work would.


I think we absolutely feel you. And I'm thinking about the fact that, that there are so many people working in arts administration and cultural communities really uplifting cultural communities that point back to Langston Hughes. That's where we met. That's where you started here in Seattle. If I'm not mistaken, it's where you got your cultural grounding. And I just think it's really interesting how we gather, we create inside our communities. And then we get this opportunity to expand that in a citywide way.


I wanna go back to what you were talking about. You brought Max Roach, but you brought him as an artist, but also as part of a, as an organizer, you talked about yourself as an organizer. So when you think about that whole notion of, of the power of arts and culture, which Vivian and I, if we had a religion, that's probably our religion, I, I would say. And so I'm just wondering from your perspective, why is it so powerful?


Well, I think that all of the arts and, and culture, that's been interesting to define what culture is because there's the various performing arts, there's the visual arts, but there's language and there's food and there's, you know, literature, <laugh> film, there's all of these various aspects that make culture, unique expressions of who we are as individual beings and common threads as a species of humans that are laced all over the planet with different experiences from each other that have similarities. So I, I think for me, I mean, for me, like with, with music and my own personal approach to playing music, I felt alive when I was doing it. Like I said, I didn't really wanna have a career being on stage, but I just I'd sit down and I'd play. And it made me feel whole and complete in ways that other things didn't, and I've had enough opportunities to, especially since I've been in Seattle and there's such a strong, uh, open mic scene here, the communities here are very supportive at the open mics and people. They encourage people to get up there and just express themselves and that's healing. And it's essential to be able to access those types of opportunities, to feel like a healthy being. And it really undoes the notion that you have to be perfect at expressing something artistically in order for there to be value in that, you know, having the opportunity to engage with an artistic practice, I think really is probably the healthiest kind of existence that you can have.


Vivian. I love what Heidi just said about having an artistic practice, being the healthiest existence you can have because you and I talk a lot about the power of, of art, not just to heal bodies, which it can do to heal spirits, to heal minds as our interview in the last episode with Holly Jacobson from path with art showed, I mean, it, there's a real power to art.


It's this thing that I embrace and I think we both embraced and love. And I think we coined the phrase being the artist adjacent and how that feels. It is kind of like putting an IV in your arm, you know, and getting that boost. And I'm also struck by this notion among most of the people that with whom we interact, where their commitment to the arts is really grounded in their necessity to be a part of something that's bigger than themselves. So it's not all focused back on them. It's really about being a part of something that, that generates more and more and more Goodwill if you will.


Goodwill. And also it is about being the community foundation. I mean, it, we invest in infrastructure like, well, maybe we don't invest enough, but things like sewers and bridges and patching up potholes in roads. And I think you can think about the arts or at least I think about that in the context of the interviews that we've done in the course of doubleXposure, the arts being the sort of psychic infrastructure, if you will, it's what keeps us as human beings functioning the way that, that the sewers keep the water flowing.


The arts are the public works of the soul. How about that? <laugh>


Did you just make that up? I love it!


It just came to me. I mean, you know,


Well, I think that our friend and somebody that I admire a lot, the theater professor and director of Valerie Curtis-Newton talks a lot about the necessity of art. And she does think about it as something that is as basic as infrastructure. And we spoke to her last season and you can find that interview at our website, But I, I think that that has really influenced me because it spoke to something that I didn't have the words for. And Val gave me those words. And so now it's a framework. And I think in interviews like this one with Heidi Jackson, talking about these community festivals and how important it is for them to come out of their neighborhoods and to be in a central place. And the fact that there's the pride in presenting everything that they feel is so valuable in their own culture, but having other people experience that and validate it, I think there's nothing more powerful than that.


True. So for those people who may not be familiar with festal specifically, I just encourage you to go to, (F E S T A L). And look at all of the different ethnic festivals that are a part of festal and this summer a lot are coming up. So there's a lot of opportunity to participate. And, uh, we just really grateful to have connections to Festál and grateful to have had Heidi Jackson as our guest.


Thanks for listening. Everyone. DoubleXposure. Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman


And me Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Engstrom and Calandra Childers.


Support for doubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications.


And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media's Black Arts Legacies Project highlighting the role of black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.


If you like what you're hearing on this episode of doubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website,

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