Bloomington-Normal Cultural Festival

Cultural Fest Continues to Wring Changes

Dan Craft

The Pantagraph

Quite a lot has changed for Bloomington's Cultural Festival over 38 summers.

But quite a lot has stayed reassuringly steadfast, too.

Just ask two of the folks who were there at the beginning and who are still on board for Saturday's 2017 edition in ISU's Bone Student Brown Ballroom (10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.).

Gary Muhammad, who co-founded the festival in the summer of 1979 with Lee Otis Brewer, is no longer involved with the festival's administration.

But he does lead local smooth jazz group Soft Spoken, a presence on the Twin Cities music scene for many years, scheduled to head up the entertainment stage at 6 p.m.

Elaine Hill, who was one of those volunteering to lend Brewer and Muhammad a helping hand for that premiere event, has been the person coordinating the vendor end of things in the years since, a role she'll be continuing Saturday, and, she adds, "hopefully many more" festivals to come.

"It was a vision that Lee Brewer and I shared," recalls Muhammad of that first festival, which, with the help of city fathers, secured Bloomington's downtown square as its location.

That vision: a celebration of cultural diversity and heritage in a positive, family friendly, life-affirming context.

"It was pretty nice ... we didn't know what our expectations were because there were no festivals being done on the square," recalls Muhammad.

Compared to what would come, the first Cultural Festival was a modest, small-scale affair, lasting around three hours on a Saturday and attracting around 200 people.

There was a steel drum band from Northern Illinois University for an added tropical flair. Some of the merchants held sidewalk sales.  

"For me," recalls Elaine Hill, "it was more like 'wow, people are embracing this,' even though it was a small, intentional group of people, and it was the diversity of it that was important to me."

That small, but heartfelt, debut led to a new location for the sophomore edition in 1980.

"The biggest thing that came out of that first year is that we found out that some of the merchants were uncomfortable with the crowds of young blacks coming downtown," says Muhammad.

Some of them, he adds, lobbied to have the festival moved elsewhere, which resulted in the move to Miller Park, which would become the festival's home for the next three decades.

"I was resistant at first," confesses Muhammad. "I didn't like it. It felt like it was a snub, in a sense, for a festival that was mean to celebrate and highlight our culture. It kind of felt like we weren't welcome."

In the end, though, the park, with its spacious room and easy access, proved itself the perfect setting for the event.

"It was more room, more of a festive atmosphere and more people could bring baskets and food and come out with the whole family and make a day of it," he says.

"It also attracted more vendors and provided the room for much more growth. It took a year or so to get the bad taste out of my mouth, but the move to Miller Park really helped it grow," says Muhammad.

Indeed, by the time of the event's 15th anniversary in 1994, attendance had ballooned from 200 in 1979 to around 4,000; and the fest's duration had expanded from three hours to three days (Friday evening through Sunday).

Rising costs, loss of sponsorship and other facts led to the festival leaving Miller Park for more economical environs, with one year spent inside at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum followed by three in ISU's Brown Ballroom.

With that space scheduled to be under renovation next summer, the festival is currently looking for an alternate home for 2018, either inside or outside, says current festival organizer Tony Jones.

Though locations and duration have changed over the decades, other aspects of the Cultural Festival have remained constant.

"I'm very, very excited about the festival has grown over the years," says Hill.

"What I love about it is that every aspect of our community, as diversified as it is, has its own thing going on ... and what's wonderful is that we are able to bring them all together, which speaks volumes for our community."

Cultural Festival: Connecting With Cultures

Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

On a green paper leaf, Brenda Joyner of Bloomington wrote the word “patience.”

She glued the leaf to a cardboard tree representing strengths in the community at the Cultural Festival Saturday at Illinois State University.

“I strive to be patient and I’m trying to grow in that direction,” she said.

Joyner has attended the annual festival, in its 37th year, for “many, many years.”

“If you’re interested in connecting with other cultures, you can start somewhere like this,” she said. “Then spread out to make diversity a big part of your life. Your life is not the only life.”

The purpose of the festival is to connect the wide variety of ethnicities in Bloomington-Normal through music, dance, art and fellowship.

Some of the performances in the Brown Ballroom included the Sugar Creek Cloggers, Odyssey World belly dancing, Japanese sword demonstration, a fashion showcase and solo singers.

“It provides an easy opportunity for the community to experience ballet, clogging, jazz, belly dancing...they can see a huge variety of cultures in one place,” said Tony Jones, program coordinator.

“With everything going on in the world, we need events like these where people can come together, mix and mingle, and enjoy a diverse environment.”

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

NIOTBN Arts Chairman Angelique Racki at the Festival.

Community groups like Not In Our Town, the local NAACP branch, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and BN Parents, shared information with visitors. Face painting, crafts and inflatables were available for kids.

While the Odyssey World belly dancers swayed to Middle Eastern music, 4-year-old Wynter Mann hopped off her seat in the audience and started to dance next to her grandma, Virginia Mann.

“It goes to show how people of other cultures can come together,” said Virginia, of Normal. 

Amber Schrlau of Stanford came to the festival for the first time with her kids Maeva, 4, and Murphy, 2.

“They need to know love and what better way than this event,” said Schrlau. “Not everyone is the same and that’s a good thing.”

The young dance group, Ballet Folklorico de Central Illinois, took the stage in authentic Mexican dancing costumes. The girls wore full red skirts and the boys wore sombreros. The group is part of Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, a non-profit organization with the goal of intercultural collaboration and connecting Latinos in the community.

“They are so excited about sharing this with the community,” said Javier Centeno, vice president of the organization. “This sort of event is about love; giving love to the community and respecting each other."

Cultural Fest July 23 at ISU

The fun-filled Cultural Fest will bring music, dance, and more to the Brown Ballroom on Saturday, July 23.

The festival runs from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. with performances throughout the day, including the Adam Larson Quartet at 6:30 p.m. and the band Miles Ahead at 7:30 p.m.

Showcases during the festival will include a jump rope team, belly dancing, a Kendo sword demonstration, and a salsa demonstration. Find a full schedule at

This is the 37th year of the festival, designed to promote and foster appreciation of cultures through entertainment and educational activities. The day also provides a forum for community organizations to promote positive activities for civic, educational, and social purposes.

The festival is free and open to all ages.

Workshops Focus On Financial Education

A pair of seminars -- one sponsored by the Bloomington-Normal NAACP -- are designed to help strengthen individual and family finances.

Cultural Fest in partnership with State Farm Bank will offer Financial Education Possibilities workshops free to the public, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. October 14 at Bloomington's Chateau Hotel. Register for the workshops at

Seating is limited, so early signup is appreciated. A $50 gift card door prize will be given away during each workshop.

Stink at Budgeting -- 6 p.m.: If you don’t know how to create a budget, this session will address tools to help families and individuals create and stick to a budget.

Credit Myths Discredited – 7 p.m.: Credit impacts every facet of our lives. So, this class helps dispel the myths that exist in regards to credit. The workshop will cover facts and fables on topics ranging from credit reports to credit cards.

For further information, contact Tony Jones  at

Meanwhile, the Bloomington-Normal NAACP Economic Development Committee is sponsoring Black Wealth, a Dialogue About Money, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the McLean County YWCA Community Room. The seminar will include "a snack and a discussion on financial issues, attitudes, problems, and solutions."

Doors open at 6 p.m. for the free program.

NIOT:B/N Seeks Youth Input at Culture Fest

Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal plans to target youth and its input at the Twin Cities' annual Cultural Festival Saturday at Illinois State University Ballroom in the Bone Student Center. 

NIOT:B/N plans to provide an indoor mini-basketball game to lure young people to its booth at the festival, which features multicultural education, information, and performances.  In addition to asking visitors to sign an anti-bigotry/anti-bullying pledge card, NIOT:B/N will ask young people to write answers to these questions:

1) What do you like about Bloomington-Normal?

2) What should we change in Bloomington-Normal?

3) What do you feel so strongly about that you would stand up to change in Bloomington-Normal?

For information and a schedule of events, visit

Cultural Festival 36 Years of Family Fun

Cultural Festival will celebrate 36 years as a community summer tradition on July 25 at the Illinois State University Ballroom in the Bone Student Center. This year the festival theme is “The Happiest Place in Central Illinois”

The festival’s primary purpose is to promote and foster appreciation for a variety of cultures through entertainment and educational activities. It’s also a forum for community organizations to promote and conduct positive activities for civic, patriotic, educational, and social purposes. It is further intended to provide good, wholesome fun activities and entertainment in a family atmosphere.

The free festival is a wonderful time with a little bit of something for everyone. One festival highlight is the main stage entertainment, featuring nonstop performances and activities throughout the day.

Entertainment & Activities
The lineup of talent will be an exciting mix this year, ranging from the Sugar Creek Cloggers to the first Cultural Fest Lip Synch battle. The Children’s Village is another big hit with both parents and youngsters. The village is a special kid zone filled with fun activities and crafts, a big bounce house and face painting by the Zoo Lady. Also Sponge Bob Squarepants will make his first appearance at Cultural Fest, he will be roaming around the Children’s Village with some great giveaways for the kids.

Health & Wellness

Health and wellness will also be promoted during this year’s festival, the McLean County Health Dept. and the 100 Black Men of Central Illinois are partnering to provide a variety of fun and educational health and wellness focus activity and information including Health & Wellness Bingo at 2 p.m. (ISU Circus Room).

 For more information about Cultural Fest, booth registration, or Lip Synch contest entry visit our website:

36th Cultural Festival To Highlight Twin Cities Diversity

Illinois State University reportedly will be “The Happiest Place in Central Illinois” July 25, as host to the 36th annual Bloomington-Normal Cultural Festival.

The festival, established in 1979, is a community event that has evolved over the years but always focuses on the theme of diversity. The event is designed as a tool to bring people and the community together to provide a positive impact and serve as “a bridge to foster positive attitudes and learning.”  This year’s event will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Illinois State University Brown Ballroom; admission and parking will be free.

Local groups can reserve a booth the Cultural Fest online by visiting Organizations may with a $50 fee request an invoice and be billed to hold a spot.

In addition, area residents can register at the website to participate in a festival Lip Synch Battle.

Festival Partners include State Farm, Ameren, the City of Bloomington, Country Financial, the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau, Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, KHOL, WXRJ, Illinois State Redbird, and Perfect Productions.

NIOT Leaders Nominated for 2015 King Award

Mary Ann Ford

The Pantagraph

Three residents from Normal and three from Bloomington are nominated for the 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards. 

Adult nominees from Normal are Sonya Mau, Marcos Mendez and Takesha Stokes. Bloomington adult nominees are Anthony "Tony" Jones, Marc Miler and Elizabeth Robinson.

The winners will be determined by the Bloomington and Normal Human Relations Commissions and announced at the 39th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon at 1 p.m. Jan. 17 at Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. 

Mau is executive director and one of the founding parents of the Multicultural Leadership Program, designed to develop diverse leaders. She also is a founding member of the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation's Women to Women Giving Circle that raises money to meet the needs of local women and children and further develop philanthropic leadership skills.

She was the first woman and the first Asian to "break the glass ceiling" and achieve a high management position at Country Financial. She also is a long-time member of Toast Masters International and has been a mentor to numerous others.

                                                                    Marcos Mendez

                                                                    Marcos Mendez

Mendez is chairman of the board for Conexiones Latinas de McLean County and an active member of State Farm's Hispanic affinity group. He volunteers as a basketball coach at the YMCA and as a soccer coach for the Prairie Cities Soccer League.

He was instrumental in planning the first Day of the Dead celebration at the Children's Discovery Museum and secured 300 free passes to ensure all families who wanted to could participate. He also has been involved in the Minorities and Police Partnership which is designed to help foster better cooperation and understanding between the Bloomington and Normal police departments and the Latino community.

Stokes is a volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club, serving as a tutor, mentor and program assistant and was in part responsible for establishment of the Teen Pageant hosted by the club. She also is active in Mount Pisgah Baptist Church including serving on the food pantry team, as church clerk and an aide to the pastor. She also is a long-time member of the Orthodox Woodriver District Baptist Association.

She is first vice president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP and has served in several other capacities with the organization; and is past president of the Bloomington-Normal Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Jones has coordinated the Bloomington-Normal Cultural Festival; spearheaded the creation of an entrepreneur showcase to inform the community of minority business; and created a monthly fundraising event with proceeds going to different community organizations.

He has served on numerous committees and boards including the Bloomington Human Relations Commission, McLean County Urban League, Boys & Girls Club, Minority and Police Partnership, West Bloomington Revitalization Project, Black Business Alliance, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and the Bloomington-Normal NAACP.

                                                                           Marc Miller

Miller is chairman of the Not In Our Town finance committee and has been an advocate for the group for more than 18 years, including taking the Not In Our Town Pledge cards into local schools.

He is a founding member of the Pratt Music Foundation and currently serves as president. He also founded the Share the Music program to provide low-cost rental instruments to Twin Cities children who want to participate in band or orchestra but can't afford the rental fees.

Robinson is membership chairman for the Black Business Alliance and is an active member of the Crossroads-Global Handcrafts board. She works with Heartland Community College students, volunteers with survivors of domestic violence through Countering Domestic Violence, and mentors teens, young women and women through the YWCA, Urban League, Junior Achievement and the NAACP.

Youth nominees

Eight Bloomington youths and four Normal youths have been nominated for the "I Have a Dream" award. They are:

Bloomington: Oludayo "Dayo" Ajayi, Markus Brooks, Radience Campbell, Tanmay Shah and Malik Woods, all of Normal Community High School; Jordyn Blyth and Jordynn Palmer, both of University High School; and Kianna A. King, Bloomington High School.

Normal: Lokesh Julakanti and Keerthi C. Amballa, both of NCHS; Kristina Smith, Normal Community West High School; and Imani Gilbert, University High School.