The Knoxville Asian Festival has been making an impact since its inception at Krutch Park in 2014, with attendance increasing from 3,000 to 60,000 at World’s Fair Park in 2019, when the festival raised close to a million dollars in revenue for Knoxville.
The Asian cultural education that the festival provides in East Tennessee is important for raising cultural awareness and reducing insensitivity to differences between cultures, according to the Asian Culture Center of Tennessee. Cultural insensitivity can be seen in workplace discrimination, bullying, and within overtly insular communities.
“This inward-looking philosophy can prevent a community from becoming citizens of the World and miss the many opportunities present therein,” said Kumi Alderman, underscoring the need for diversity education in the Knoxville area. Alderman is the executive director of the festival.
With these goals in mind, the Asian Culture Center of Tennessee (ACCT) was founded at the same time as the festival in 2014. Alderman sees the festival as an outreach program for the center as well. She describes the program as a highly focused organization designed to develop cultural diversity and understanding within the community. Building on these intentions, the festival has grown each year and has increased tourism for Knoxville.
The outreach program was a natural extension of the festival, as requests rolled in from teachers and community members seeking Asian cultural education in their schools or businesses.
To begin to facilitate this curriculum, Alderman invited a native Japanese outreach program coordinator, Mahagi LaCure, to help. LaCure has been teaching Japanese for more than 30 years and is a senior lecturer at the University of Tennessee. LaCure’s program will mainly focus on Japanese culture. The program’s goals are to introduce people to the language, create cultural competence among students, host teacher workshops and curriculum development.
Multicultural education has many benefits for students in public schools, including helping young children to understand diversity and different cultural backgrounds, according to research. Cultural education helps to bring people together, and starting in schools is a great way to normalize the differences between cultures.
Of the 30,559 students at the University of Tennessee, about 3.7% are Asian, according to university data. Some students participate in the festival, but it’s an opportunity for students to interact with the Asian community in Knoxville outside of campus. The cultural center can deepen that opportunity.
Exposure to other perspectives is transformative, as Alderman said has experienced in her own life. Traveling and seeing different cultures had a tremendous impact on Alderman and she hopes that a program like this could increase people’s interest in traveling to other Asian countries, and inspire study abroad opportunities. The program plans to partner with K-12 schools in the area, universities, businesses, museums and local governments.
Putting the pieces in place for these services will require qualified professionals, educators and support from the community. “We are looking for the office space, coordinator host family, local program coordinator to partner with schools and universities,” Alderman said. “We would like to create the outreach program as an educational non-profit.”
The ACCT is the only organization of its kind in Knoxville and the surrounding areas. A physical space for the center would be ideal since there are not many cultural centers like this, particularly in the South. There are a few across the country, mostly housed in universities, and those have a positive impact on inclusion and education of students, something Alderman hopes to encourage here.
Alderman has noticed that the support for the festival keeps growing along with requests for education within the schools. She hopes to show the public the positive impact that the festival has on all that attend, demonstrating the need for more events like this.
“ACCT is promoting a diverse and harmonious society that prepares today’s children to take the stage as true global citizens.”
Alderman also works closely with Leroy Kautz, a local teacher of Kung Fu who has studied various martial arts styles since the 70s and established the Wah Lum School in Knoxville for martial arts. They agree that the best way to get people involved in Asian culture is to immerse people in it. The festival achieves this by including performances from many Asian countries, food from those countries, and music.
Kautz and Alderman both stress the importance of engaging the senses when exploring a country or culture rather than just hearing stories.
“I believe the festival having food is really bringing the smell of the country together. Giving you an actual taste, literally,” Kautz says.
This year’s event will also include a film festival at Central Cinema showing an educational movie and a famous Japanese movie the night before.
Alderman was a tour conductor based in Japan and traveled worldwide, a job that allowed her to open up to new people and their cultures. “When you travel, you eat the food and smell the country. And then you meet the people, they act different, and they are different. But they just want to be happy. It’s a different color, different culture, but I found out people are the same,” Alderman said.
This revelation inspires the spirit of the festival. Alderman has used her knowledge to make the festival inclusive and fun for all ages and backgrounds. “I just said, well, you know, people, the way they are kind of apart is because they don’t know me, and they kind of back up,” Alderman says. “But the fun part of this job is that if I open up, I can learn from them and be friends with them.”
This year, the festival’s goal is to provide community and healing for all who attend.
“The idea of the festival is to unite people and promote friendship. The festival has this energy that when you walk through it and not only smell it, but you can hear the laughter and feel it too. It’s a wonderful thing,” Kautz said.
The festival will take place Aug. 28 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at World’s Fair Park. For more information on the festival, visit their website.