The party still has a purpose

The secret to ComFest's lasting success is a simple one – it is perhaps the only local, mainstream festival run by senior citizens.

OK, so that's a kind-of joke that longtime ComFest volunteer Steve Abbott made during our interview at an Italian Village coffee shop. Fellow ComFest vet Michael Gruber laughed at the comment, but he also reinforced the core notion behind Abbott's quip.

“A lot of us were around at the start,” Gruber said, noting that ComFest will mark its 46th year in 2018. “And we've stayed true to our founding principles.”

And there's perhaps where we get at the real reason for ComFest's longevity – it is a rare festival that even has founding principles.

“There is an original vision which has been sustained,” Abbott said.

What eventually became known as ComFest grew out of a spirit of collective civil activism in the name of social and political change. To highlight and celebrate the work of local volunteer-run, grassroots social agencies in Columbus, specifically in the campus area, and mostly notably in the fields of food, health and housing, combined with local anti-Vietnam War activism, some of those activists created an event to honor local individuals and agencies and to share the kind of work that was being done. ComFest continues to annually honor a community activist and a community organization, and ComFest also donates money through its grant program to provide assistance to a variety of local organizations and projects.

Live music, food and beverage vendors and many other typical festival trappings were just logical extensions of a community coming together for a celebration. In the past few years, some of the original organizers and their next-generation counterparts felt like maybe that original focus on volunteerism and activism was getting lost amid a “beer, bands and boobs” perception of the festival, Abbott said.

“We were very intentional about reemphasizing the principles, to make it clear about what it is we're maintaining here,” Abbott said.

That effort included the increased emphasis on speakers addressing issues that spoke to the festival's activist foundation, in recent years addressing, among other topics, refugee and immigrant issues, compassionate communication and intersectional feminism.

Additionally, ComFest does not maintain corporate sponsorships and is staffed completely by volunteers. Both of those things reinforce the personal nature of ComFest as an event that is not just put on for the community but by the community.

“There's a sense among the attendees that, ‘We're here among our people,'” Abbott said. “It's not our festival so much as it is everybody's festival. And people are committed to whatever they see ComFest as.”

So for some it's still simply a fun summer weekend in a signature city park, but to others it's a place to energize and expand their own activism. For some it's a place to see people they might only see this one time a year, and for some it's an opportunity to participate in an event at the ground level.

Gruber spoke to the idea that the intent is for that original vision of ComFest to live beyond the involvement of its founders. “In a few years we'll have the 50th ComFest. And after that we've got a 10-year plan that doesn't include us,” he said. “The hope is that the next generation that takes it over will read those principles and find value in them.”