Powell Street Festival telethon to raise funds to launch Downtown Eastside community kitchen program

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      At a time when British Columbians are working together in order to overcome one of the province’s greatest challenges, a local organization is demonstrating traditional cultural values of selflessness and working cooperatively for the benefit of everyone. Not only is the Powell Street Festival raising funds for a new program that will help ensure low-income individuals in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) have access to meals, the Japanese Canadian organization will also provide employment and cultural-sharing opportunities for members of the neighbourhood.

      This year, the 44th annual Powell Street Festival (PSF), which usually takes place at Oppenheimer Park in the DTES, will shift to an online livestream from 2 to 7 p.m. on Saturday (August 1) at the PSF website, to be cohosted by voice actor Yurie Hoyoyon and playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu.

      It’s not the first time the festival has relocated, as it has previously changed locations in order to respect homeless encampments at the site, owing to the organization’s commitment to social justice. With a historical forced displacement during the Second World War internment of Japanese Canadians, the Powell Street Festival Society (PSFS) is continuing to forge solidarity and connections with other local groups, including DTES residents and Indigenous people, who have had or are undergoing parallel experiences. After all, the DTES is the location of the former Paueru-gai (パウエル街), or the Japanese Canadian community neighbourhood that became referred to as Japantown.    

      That core value of addressing socio-economic issues is reflected in the festival’s fundraising telethon this year for a kitchen project that will not only provide food for low-income DTES community members but will also employ four individuals from the area to provide skill-building experiences, income, community-building experiences, and intercultural exchange.

      Yurie Hoyoyon and Tetsuro Shigematsu will cohost the 44th annual Powell Street Festival online.

      In a phone interview, PSFS executive director Emiko Morita explained to the Georgia Straight that they had been holding community roundtables prior to the pandemic to explore how they could be beneficial to others year-round.

      She said they have been trying to figure out how to use their assets and create a system to help people in neighbourhood, as they have longstanding knowledge of production and also have equipment and resources, such as a hot-water system and tents in storage.

      Repeated themes, she said, revolved around food, making meals together, and cultural sharing—all of which were a natural fit for the organization.

      During the pandemic, she said that they became involved in the response to the urgent needs of people in the Downtown Eastside and that a community kitchen network that had previously dissolved was resurrected.

      The PSFS will become part of that network by launching the PowellStFest Community Kitchen, which will be focussed on working to create economic equity, skill building, and cultural sharing.

      The kitchen is also part of the organization’s array of DTES Community Care Program, which includes the the Asahi Tribute Game, the Giving Ceremony, Minori Harvest, and the Hanami Cherry Blossom Picnic. All of these programs help to raise awareness about Japanese Canadian history and culture while pursuing goals of inclusion and socio-economic equality.

      Tetsuro Shigematsu

      This week, the society is distributing 1,500 care packages, funded by a Vancouver Foundation grant, that will be tailored to different needs. She said that her colleagues spent four consecutive days shopping at several supermarkets, due to shopping limits at stores, in their efforts to obtain non-perishable items for the packages.

      Morita explained that 800 packages, which will include hiyashi chuka (summer noodle salad) with vegetables and chicken karaage, will be provided to unhoused people while Chinese seniors will receive fresh vegetables with their packages.

      She added that they are developing a cultural workers training program to bridge diverse communities, and that they may launch a weekly meal program in the autumn.

      While the festival has always been free, they will receive revenue this year from commission sales as the festival is not being presented in its usual physical form in Oppenheimer Park. Instead, it will be a five-hour online telethon presented at the PSF website, as a fundraising for the kitchen project.

      Morita explained that they do receive funding from all three levels of government, which have all relaxed rules about the use of those funds. Accordingly, she said that while this year they can focus on getting the kitchen project underway, she remains uncertain how things will be economically from next year onward.

      However, the new online format this year gives Morita hope, as she said it will help them reach and gain new audience members and establish new ways of communicating with them. In turn, she believes these developments will help to sustain the festival in the coming years “which are going to be more challenging”.

      To watch the telethon, to make a donation, or to find out more information, visit the PSF website.