The long-running 'Party with a Purpose' takes a fresh stand

It takes organization to make ComFest happen.

It might seem obvious that a lot of work goes into putting on a weekend-long event that draws hundreds of thousands to Goodale Park. But even when the crowds weren't quite that large, the annual “Party with a Purpose,” now in its 45th year, was about rallying individuals to collective causes.

“The fact is that over the years ComFest's image or emphasis in the community has ebbed and flowed, and sometimes that image has swung over to, ‘beer, bands and boobs,'” longtime ComFest volunteer Steve Abbott said in an interview at his Old North home, where a handful of ComFest volunteers gathered to discuss whether there was an intentional effort this year to reframe that public perception of the staple of the summer festival season.

Organizers, in turn, would probably prefer not to spend time and energy on the recent controversy that surfaced when state liquor agents threatened to shut down festival alcohol sales if topless women — both legal in Goodale and a ComFest tradition — were allowed to attend. In the days leading up to the festival, organizers were granted an injunction, allowing the continued coexistence of boobs and beer.

That ComFest organizers selected David Browning's “Rise Up” logo, featuring a raised fist, for the cover of the festival's program guide would seem to indicate a stronger political and social bent to this year's festival. The slogan “Resist, Persist, Coexist,” to be seen on official beer mugs throughout the weekend, balances purposeful with peaceful protest — the kind of sentiment that has been at the core of ComFest since the inaugural event in 1972.

In a separate phone interview, volunteer Connie Everett said the festival can look different to different people depending on how vested they are in the spirit of the event.

“Sometimes the media coverage has been ‘beer and boobs,' but anybody that takes the time to scratch the surface [and] to look at our program guide … it clearly illustrates what we're about,” volunteer Michael Gruber said.

“The People United Will Never Be Defeated.”

This oft-repeated ComFest refrain, borrowed from a 1975 Frederic Rzewski piano composition, speaks to the founding of the event, which was to be a celebration of the work being done by volunteer, grassroots social agencies in Columbus, and specifically in the campus area. The spirit of the time was collective civil activism in the name of social and political change, highlighted by the anti-Vietnam War movement, a second wave of feminism, gay activism and the like. Locally, service organizations in the areas of food, health and housing, combined with local anti-war activists and other social movements, were at work. Some of those activists created an event to honor local volunteers and activists and to share the kind of work that was being done in those areas. That event became ComFest.

“In the beginning, it was really a celebration of what all these groups had done during the year,” Gruber said, recalling his early ComFest days working various booths and selling T-shirts and bumper stickers in support of a cause. “They got together and sort of had a party to celebrate volunteerism and activism.”

Every year the festival honors a community activist (this year it's Bill Faith, a longtime advocate for the homeless and other housing issues) and community organizations (for 2017, Community Refugee and Immigration Services). ComFest also donates money through its grant program to provide assistance to a variety of local organizations and projects, having gifted a total of more than $400,000 in aid throughout its history, according to Everett.

“It's so interwoven, especially as, in the past few years, we've tried to put our spirit and purpose into everything, trying to connect everything together,” said volunteer Meghan Ralston (a freelance photographer and Alive contributor). “We want to be able to say, ‘This is what we think. This is how we put it into action.'”

The basic necessities of life are a right, not a privilege.

This segment of ComFest's guiding principles is followed by, “People have the collective right to control the conditions of their lives.” While organizing in support of causes important to its founders (and now a subsequent generation of volunteers) remains at ComFest's heart, there has been some acknowledgment in recent years of the need to make sure festival attendees are cognizant of this history. Organization and activism are not things that merely happen at ComFest, but are the reasons why it exists.

“It's not like we haven't done this [in the past]. I just feel like this year were really engaged with it,” Everett said. “‘Resist' was the word that everybody felt was right when we started talking about our slogan [for this year]. I personally could go on all day about [President Trump] and his behavior, but it's really about not being anti-him as we are against these draconian policies.”

“In March, when we held the logo contest, I think many of us felt in the back of our minds this year would be appropriate to blow with the current political winds against the current regime,” Gruber said, to which Abbott added, “The whole process of the election campaign revealed a dark side of American politics that couldn't be ignored. A classic good-vibes approach just wasn't going to work.”

David Browning, a ComFest volunteer and local graphic designer, said he wanted his logo to reflect both defiance and unity. He acknowledged that a fist is a striking image, both figuratively and potentially literally, but that it also represents “a banding together, a sort of ‘Power to the people.'”

“It looks strong, but it represents peaceful resistance,” Browning said, noting the presence of a dove and an olive branch in the design. “Rise up, get involved, group together and make things happen.”

“Resist is not a violent word, but I think people might see it as a harsh word,” Everett said. “It's important to reflect that we promote unity. We want people to unite and work together for the common good of individuals and communities.”

“Some of the reemphasis on spirit and purpose … and the things that we're showing through our workshops and speakers is to attract people who are interested in these things [and] who share these values,” Ralston said.

In community we trust.

An increased emphasis on politics and activism doesn't end at a logo and a slogan. While there have always been speakers at ComFest, connecting those speakers to attendees through workshops has been more of a focus over the past several years, part of that ongoing effort to impart that “purpose” aspect of the “Party with a Purpose” slogan.

Ralston admitted her earliest experiences at ComFest were to enjoy time with friends and to check out some cool bands. As she started to see the values at work in ComFest, she began to view it as a place where she could volunteer and do some good in the community.

Gruber added that, even as new festival-goers enjoy a day in the park, they may sign petitions, hear speakers or otherwise find ways to become engaged.

Many of this year's presenters represent efforts that ComFest has funded through its grant program, Ralston said, indicative of an ongoing commitment to these causes that extends beyond the three festival days.

Workshop topics for ComFest 2017 include refugee and immigrant issues, compassionate communication, intersectional feminism, medical marijuana, fake news and more. Speakers include former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Sandy Theis of Progress Ohio, Sierra Club Ohio chapter Director Jen Miller and Columbus Community Bill of Rights organizer Carolyn Harding, who will be making her fourth appearance as a speaker at ComFest.

“ComFest is a gathering of people who believe in and work for community. It's a celebration. And it's been a pivotal event for the Columbus Community Bill of Rights,” Harding said. “People are more aware and supportive of protecting our environment and more willing to do something about it, like sign petitions, purchase items that help fund causes and volunteer their energy and time.

“We're at ComFest this year to celebrate our community [and] to let folks know about the 13 active frack waste injection wells in our watershed, with more permitted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and to enroll all the help we can for this yearlong effort to give Columbus voters a voice in protecting our community and stop this toxic waste in our water, air and soil.”

“The workshops bring in people with real information who have expertise. Sometimes they do not necessarily have a political agenda, but they have expertise in the field and that's what we're looking for,” Everett said.

“We want to show people [they're] not alone. There are people doing things, and if you want to address these issues, here's where you can go,” Abbott said.

“The spirit of ComFest is progressive, and our purpose is to pass along that progressive information and message and inspire activism and justice in the community,” Everett said. “That is something that must be passed on. It is not ours to hold. It's continual work that we have to do. And we're committed to it.”