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The Counter Festival

It started with a sick feeling. A performer notorious for allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls was going to headline a show for a new festival, and that made a lot of people think twice about whether they could support said fest.

Musicians Raeghan Barron and Ryan Vile took it a step further and opted to create a something you could support: a counter festival. The event would not only take a stand against what many saw as sweeping a celebrity’s alleged history of sexually abusing young girls under the rug, but it would also raise money to advocate for victims of sexual assault. And thus, from the minds of the dissenters, FemFest was born.

In its third year, FemFest has expanded in some ways and contracted in others. There are two separate weekends of the festival this year. “It’s funny because it seems like we’re getting bigger since we’re doing two weekends,” said Laddan Shoar, one of the co-founders of the festival. “Really, it’s smaller in scope. We have Kafe Kerouac for the workshops, and we have a mixer as well. We’re still securing the venue, but as of today it looks like the mixer will be at Brothers Drake. Our main show is at Ace of Cups again, and we’re also using the new Used Kids space.”

FemFest is incorporating the arts in multiple ways, including a film presentation by Cinema Outsider that will be put on by Wild Goose Creative. In addition to the film, there’s also Estrogenesis—a dance party being held at Seventh Son. The festival organizers wanted to keep the festival located in an area that’s walkable and easily accessible by public transit. In the past, the festival organizers have worked with the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence based out of Cleveland. The funds that were raised aided the passing of legislation that spurred the examination of countless aged rape kits.

Co-organizer Leigh DeRouen elaborated on their fundraising efforts, and explained that FemFest is 100 percent for charity, so every dollar that is raised goes directly to the charity and doesn’t pass through the hands of the FemFest organizers. “It’s cool that the money went toward legislation,” she said. “In our second year, and this year as well, we wanted to do more of a grassroots impact. We really wanted to have a more boots-on-the-ground approach, so we partnered with BRAVO, and they’ve been really great to work alongside. They’re about the same size that we are in terms of people, so they understand bumps in the road. They’re a crew of mostly volunteers and they all wear all of the hats.” And, in two years’ time, they’ve raised more than $17,000.

Intersectionality has played a role in FemFest’s choice to partner with BRAVO.

“BRAVO focuses on a different demographic and that really helped to add diversity. In our first year, we used the woman symbol, not really thinking that it could be exclusive. We’ve all learned a lot and grown a lot along the way,” Raeghan said. The summer that the group chose to work with BRAVO, there was an uptick in the news cycles concerning violence against the transgender community, and that helped to propel the need for diversity and inclusivity to the forefront of their minds.

The group also wanted to help an area of the community that has historically been underrepresented, specifically the individuals that spurred their action in the first place: Black girls who are minors and who, as a result, are more likely to wield less socioeconomic power. The ladies of FemFest reiterated what many of us know—Columbus is a city of “doers.”

“So many cities are,” Leigh said, “but here, we’re in a position in which we can have a direct effect on shaping the future, culture, and vibe of the city. We have all sorts of groups doing that here. Anyone can get involved. People donating their time, money, talent, anything—it’s all helping.”

Just like the fest serves many, each of the women behind FemFest have their own specific emotions of what the event means to them. For Raeghan, it’s the thought of her niece coming to a local music camp and learning to play the guitar; subsequently taking that confidence back home with her to Pennsylvania. Laddan talked about being a woman of Iranian descent, and the struggles she’s faced as a result. Leigh talked about being a queer woman in a conservative family. For all three, they thought of having a place they each felt they could “take up space” being exactly who they are as individuals: Raeghan, a black woman from Erie; Leigh, a queer woman with roots in the deep south and a Native American heritage, and Laddan, a first generation Iranian-American. Three women with different backgrounds—all possessing similarities in their personal histories—coming together to create a festival that celebrates and empowers women, trans, and non-binary peoples of diverse identities.

For more on FemFest (happening 8.12-14 and 8.20-21) visit femfest3.com.

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