By Allan Christensen

A festival next week celebrating Lincoln’s diversity couldn’t come at a better time, organizers say.

“In this time when the national rhetoric has been very divisive, an opportunity to really come together and meet somebody else and hear their story is really the way to break down some of those fears,” said Christa Yoakum, one of the organizers.

The second annual Lincoln Unites! will be held on Saturday, April 29, at the Tower Square, 13th and P streets, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Its attractions include dancers, music, food trucks and an art show.  The festival is designed to be a way to share cultures to create a strong and vibrant community that is inclusive and welcoming of its immigrant and refugee neighbors.

 “It is a public and visible acknowledgement that we are a diverse community,” said Yoakum, who along with a group of others have been working on the festival for months. Those volunteering to organize the effort are members of a subcommittee of the New American Task Force, a network of public and private organizations dedicated to supporting New Americans in our community.  The task force, originally called the Immigration and Refugee Task Force, was organized by city leaders in 1985 to make sure the needs of every Lincoln resident were being met, Yoakum said. It continues today in the face of an increasingly negative national tone toward immigrants and refugees.

“I think that when we’ve got city leaders’ support and buy-in that sets the tone here locally,” Yoakum said.  “It doesn’t matter what the national rhetoric is, as far as how we interact with each other and I think that will continue at the local level.”

The goal of Lincoln Unites! is to inspire interaction, Yoakum said.

“Most festivals have booths but we specifically ask that booths not be just ‘Here are my flyers and these are the services I provide,’ but that these booths have something interactive,” she said.  “So that people will engage with the people that are there.”

Yoakum hopes those who are native-born or long-time residents of Lincoln will make the effort to attend and potentially break down stigmas and stereotypes.

“It doesn’t matter how well someone speaks English or how good their job skills are, if the receiving community is not ready to welcome them, they’re not going to be nearly as successful, if they’re successful at all,” she said.

The musical and dance acts begin at 11:45 a.m. and will run until the festival ends.  In between events on stage, immigrants and refugees will share their stories of their journey to Lincoln.

The event also will include a naturalization ceremony for about 40 people as they are sworn in as new citizens.  The ceremony will be held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Van Brunt Visitors Center, just a block north of Tower Square.

The Lincoln Unites! festival is really about the age-old Midwestern quality of being a good neighbor, Yoakum said.

“We want to look out for our neighbors, whether they’ve been our neighbors for 50 years or five months.”