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An interview with the organizers

"Ladyfest" is a decentralized, recurring feminist punk festival with deep roots in the Riot Grrrl scene. Anyone can organize a Ladyfest, and each version is different from the last, but they usually involve a combination of DIY-spirited music, arts and activism-related workshops, and tabling zinesters.

The first Ladyfest was in Olympia, Washington in 2000 with Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, and the Gossip, to name a few. Dozens more have been organized independently around the world.

Next weekend, folks from throughout the northeast and beyond will descend on Philadelphia for the city's second installment of the feminist tradition, following 2003's Ladyfest Philadelphia.

Questions arise at the thought of a Ladyfest in 2013: as conceptions surrounding gender identity grow more complex, has the term "Ladyfest" grown dated? Does the fest's historical ties to Riot Grrrl mean anything in a feminist punk scene that is increasingly tired of lazy comparisons to another generation's movement?

To contextualize this week's Ladyfest Philly issue, we posed some of the big questions to several of the fest's organizers; see our correspondence below.

This issue provides a snapshot of what one might experience at the festival, and as a result, contains some of the most vital voices in today's feminist punk underground: Kate Wadkins reflects on feminist organizing with her collective For the Birds, who present a workshop on Saturday. Tara Murtha deconstructs victim blaming in the media, the topic of her Sunday morning workshop. Additionally, Katie Alice Greer of the DC post-punk band Priests offers insight into her band's attempt to book a tour of only all-ages shows. Priests play Ladyfest on Sunday evening. And we are honored to publish a comic by Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females, who also play Sunday.

Tickets for Ladyfest Philly range from $20-40. Megabus now offers a direct bus route from Boston to Philly. All proceeds from the festival benefit Project SAFE and Women in Transition.


How was Ladyfest Philly organized?

Grace Ambrose: In winter of 2012, I was living in London and watched from afar while many of my friends organized and attended Ladyfest Boston. (Thanks, internet!) I knew that I wanted to return to Philly when I finished my masters program in the UK. The week after Ladyfest Boston I wrote to Gina Renzi, who runs the Rotunda, and asked her to save a weekend on summer 2013's calendar for a future Ladyfest in Philly.

We held our first meeting in late October 2012 at the Girls Rock Philly Headquarters in Fishtown. In the beginning of the process, we held big group meetings every three weeks or so. For the first two months we worked together as a group to hash out the overall vision of the festival -- what kinds of things we wanted to see happen, writing a mission statement, setting up structures like the Tumblr, Facebook, and email, what the arc of the weekend might look, etc.  

After we felt like we had arrived together on a vision of what we were trying to end up with, we broke up into about ten smaller committees in order to get the nitty-gritty details sorted out: bands, workshops, merch, info/resources, facilities, vendors, press and communications, budget, fundraising, film, art etc. These committees met on varying schedules and we had what we called "All-Fest" meetings once a month to check in with each other and make decisions as a group. 

Sara Sherr: The meetings would take place at public spaces, such as coffee houses, and at people's homes. We would do a when2meet to determine when the most people would come, and alternate different days to include everyone's schedules. Someone would facilitate the meeting and take notes, which would be posted on our list serv for those who missed the meeting.

How were decisions made?

Grace Ambrose: We operated with a modified form of consensus. At times however, there were decisions that needed to be made on timelines that were outside of our control, and we resorted to voting. Though we met in person a lot, our listserv was a hugely important tool for organizing and for sharing information. Decisions that were decided democratically were largely ones which took place in the times between our meetings.

It was also incredibly important to us to maintain our safer space policy throughout the organizing process. One way this manifested itself was that anyone had the ability to "blackball" or veto extending an invitation to participate in the festival. This wasn't something to be used when you didn't personally like a band's music, but rather, when the party involved made you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If an organizer vetoed something, they were under no obligation to explain or justify the situation that made them do so -- we all trusted each other to take this process seriously and only use it in situations where safety (emotional, physical, etc) was on the line. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much of this festival is based on trust and the relationships we have built with one another over the past eight months. We put a lot of faith in each other to make decisions for the good of the festival and the group.

The committees themselves were non-hierarchical. There were no chairs, and no committee ranked higher than others. The only committee that everyone had to answer to was the Budget committee -- but only so we could keep an eye on group spending! All-fest meetings often began with a go-around, where each committee would give a 3-5 minute update, followed by a discussion of some big decisions, and ending with another go around, where we each shared with the group what our takeaway tasks from the meeting were. 

How did you choose the bands and workshops?

Grace Ambrose: The band and workshop selection process was a long one. At an early meeting, we taped big pieces of poster board up on the wall. Each was labeled with a category, things like "bands," "workshops," "organizations," "films," "artists," etcetera. We spent an hour or so brainstorming our dream participants. By the end of the night the sheets were completely full. I'd actually love to go back and look at them now, in order to see what sorts of things we thought of initially and which have become realities! It was soon after this brainstorming session that we split into the smaller committees. The committees moved forward based on the ideas that came out of that night. 

The bands and workshops are a mix of those whom we invited directly and those who submitted to our open call. We received a ton of submissions and went through all of them, before coming together as a group and deciding which to invite to participate in the fest. There were a ton of amazing bands and workshop ideas that we weren't able to include -- the fest would have had to be a week long to accommodate everybody!   

What was the biggest challenge to organizing Ladyfest Philly?

Sara Sherr: With any volunteer-based organization, you are always at the mercy of people's schedules, so that can be difficult. Also, with any large project, it is difficult to sustain enthusiasm and a sense of urgency until the end. A lot of people love the idea of Ladyfest, but can't do the immense work involved with a festival. It can be very intimidating, especially if you've never worked on a festival before. It's daunting even to some of us who regularly book shows. Also, trying to organize through consensus can be challenging because you are waiting to hear different people's opinions on things, when there are times when you have to make a decision more quickly.

Grace Ambrose: For me there were personal challenges, many of which I'm sure will be familiar to anyone who has experience with collective organizing. For me, Ladyfest was as much about the process of getting to the weekend as the weekend itself, and I look forward to taking the lessons I learned about organizing, co-ownership and authorship, healthy antagonism, and collaboration forward into future organizing initiatives. I'm planning on writing a zine about the process of organizing Ladyfest -- not really a how to, but more of a reflection on all of the complications that go along with conscientious organizing and collaboration. I think most of us have some pretty complicated (good complicated!) feelings right now, and I don't want to forget them any time soon. I'm hoping that most of us will move forward with organizing -- whether it be art shows or punk shows or zine readings or direct actions, or whatever! -- and I think that the challenges we encountered in this process will only help us continue to be better and demand more.

How did you choose the organizations Ladyfest is benefiting: Project SAFE and Women in Transition? How are these organizations in line with the goals and values of Ladyfest?

Sara Sherr: We specifically wanted to pick small, local organizations that also help women who are not like us. Most of us are white, straight, middle class, cis, able-bodied. These organizations help a broad range of women. Also, due to the nature of Project SAFE's outreach with sex workers, it is often difficult for them to get funding through traditional means.

Grace Ambrose: It was important for us to choose organizations that don't necessarily have a built in support system in our community, and where our contributions could make a real impact. I'm looking forward to Project SAFE and Women in Transition having a visible presence the weekend of the fest -- on Saturday night, representatives from both will get up in front of a hopefully packed house and speak directly to the audience about why their work matters here and now.  

  Why was it important for you to call this festival "Ladyfest" rather than come up with a new name/identity?

Jessi Holton: For me, using the name "Ladyfest" is about connecting with a larger feminist community and building upon the tradition of Ladyfest. I think of Ladyfest Philly 2013 being as bigger than just Philadelphia, and it gives us an opportunity to connect with a world-wide community. 

Grace Ambrose: This was something that we discussed for quite a long time at our first meeting. Some of us had reservations about the inclusivity of the word "Lady." What if you wouldn't identify yourself as a "lady" but otherwise, our mission and activities seemed right-on to you? Ultimately, I think we decided to stick with it because of the history of the term. Ladyfests are special, in that no two look alike. There's no governing body of Ladyfests, there are no guidelines for how they are run or when and where they happen. Instead, it's a term that is flexible -- you can pick it up and make it into what you want (or need) when you need it. I think as a form, they are very responsive to the needs of the communities that birth them. At Ladyfest Philly, we belong to a history, but we are not beholden to it. 

Some of us also had some reservations about using a term so closely tied to the late 90s/early 2000s in the wake of the mass nostalgia for that moment. I respect Riot Grrrl (in all of its complications, I cannot deny its importance, both personally and more widely) but I don't particularly view myself as bearing out its specific legacy. Ultimately, though, I think we made the right choice in sticking with the Ladyfest moniker -- and owed that in part to the festival's history of encouraging diversity in its various manifestations.

Sara Sherr: Ladyfest has a lot of history and is still a good model for so many women as a good way to mix punk, feminism, and a strong DIY community on a large scale. Right now, there are women who were very young or were not born for Riot Grrrl, so this is their way to interact with it on their terms.

What have your previous Ladyfest experiences been like? What was your biggest "take away" from a Ladyfest in the past?

Maria Sciarrino: I was involved with Ladyfest Philly in 2003 in addition to the current one. For both events, I've been involved with the web/techy aspects of the festival.

For me, the biggest change I've seen has been the enormous shift in technology and how it intermingles with our lives. Ladyfest 2003 was built by hand and with tools that barely stack up to what's available now. A lot of the tools we're using to make LFP 2013 happen on a technological level simply didn't exist. We probably couldn't even imagine them back then if we tried really, really hard.

At the 10-year anniversary for LFP 2003 organizers that was held back in March, many of us reveled at how we managed to put on a 4-day festival without online social networks and other tools. Back then (as we do in this iteration), we took advantage of whatever methods available to us -- handmade flyers that we photocopied, coding our website page-by-page by hand, partnering with organizations that had more resources at their disposal (BuyOlympia.com sold our tickets online for us), and spending every waking moment discussing the details on our listserv when there wasn't an in-person meeting (in the month of the event itself, there were over 600 emails alone).

For this year's Ladyfest, there are a bunch of different technologies at play. For starters, the site is on Tumblr (with some custom tweaks), another service for managing the schedule details, and another service for selling tickets online. Then there's a bunch of Google Apps to organize and collaborate internally and with the outside public, plus a variety of social media tools to reach out to folks.

What's interesting to me is that Ladyfest has shifted from a very hands-on production to something made possible by a variety of third-party applications and services in order to engage with a wider audience. There are so many tools available that make it possible for anyone to organize something like this.

In both events I see a kind of individual who has the determination to make this happen. That hasn't changed. At the end of the day, Ladyfest is a series of in-person conversations, organizer meetings, email messages, online forms, collaborative documents, and spreadsheets. Especially spreadsheets. We really love them.

Noel Petrie: I attended a workshop at Ladyfest East (in NYC) in 2001 at which I held my first bass guitar. The girl who handed it to me told me I could play it and said it in a way that I believed her. Two years later I was playing another Ladyfest with a bunch of other amazing ladies who I love dearly. I have had some of the best times of my life playing music and encouraging others to play through Girls Rock DC and Girls Rock Philly. Ladyfest makes my heart swell.

Ladyfest Philly is clearly about more than just gender and feminism, taking more of an intersectional approach to creating an anti-oppressive space. Can you explain why that has been important in organizing the fest?

Sara Sherr: Each wave of feminism has struggled and ultimately failed to include women who are not white, straight, cis, middle class, and able-bodied, and it seems that this generation of young feminists is more sensitive to that than in the past. Feminists of every stripe should be working to smash oppressive gender roles and create more opportunity for all. Every movement needs allies and to succeed you need to focus on your common goals instead of your differences. Those who are threatened by what the feminist movement offers want to keep us divided and fighting with each other.

Grace Ambrose: One thing that we always said about Ladyfest is that we hoped it would be a place where difficult conversation happen. Some conversations are difficult and they look it on the surface: Sexual Communication and Consent, Victim-Blaming and the Media. Others might seem more straightforward -- Urban Gardening, Stop Motion Animation, Herbal Infusions -- but our feminisms permeate them in strange and surprising ways. We wanted to create different points of access. Some people want to confront these difficult conversations head on. Others can take some more coaxing. We wanted Ladyfest to be a place where all kinds of difficult topics were broached -- not just those pertaining to gender and feminism, but about the other forms of oppression that we and others encounter every day of our lives. They're all intertwined.

It takes time to learn how to adjust your thinking about oppression and privilege, particularly the privilege of being able to ignore certain forms of injustice -- whether it be the fact that the neighborhood punks rarely book bands with women or people of color in them or that sad reality that many women in Philadelphia can't access safe and affordable abortions -- just because they don't apply to you. Much of Ladyfest is about being able to adjust your thinking to see beyond yourself, helping ourselves and others realize that things don't have to be the way they are.

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