Gatherings carry immense power. They bring together people to share, celebrate, debate, rally, sing, dance, and more. Gatherings help communities thrive, and have taken on a very important role in our society – perhaps more now than ever. It is easier than ever before to identify, connect with, and nurture communities in all their shapes and sizes. And when groups come together, with authentic, non-digital, real life interactions, the results can be truly powerful.
However, with great power lies dormant vulnerability. Gatherings can be ecstatic, life-giving experiences but they can also be a forum for disaster. They can elevate a community’s sense of pride and identity, and they can also be a source of enormous waste and missed opportunities.
Organizers of mass gatherings are not simply grappling with choosing a venue, selling tickets, or booking acts. They are considering the weather, power, security, and crowd control among a plethora of other concerns.
To help support the health and sustainability of mass gatherings, emergency plans need to be in place. Having medical professionals, medical resources, and security personnel onsite are already requirements in many states. Being prepared for the worst is not only about social safety, it is about social justice.
Matthew Ché Kowal, founder of Majestic Collaborations, Inc. has always been interested in social justice, an interest he attributes to his father singing him the songs of Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, and Bob Dylan when Kowal was young. Since then, Kowal has been in pursuit of justice in all its creative forms.
Kowal and Majestic Collaborations, Inc. are indebted to collaborations with Performing Arts Readiness, Colorado Creative Industries, and Denver Arts & Venues for affording important opportunities to create and inspire change where it is necessary.
In addition, Kowal has been inspired and educated by helping fragile yet incredibly resilient communities in Colorado and elsewhere. Together with his wife Molly North, Kowal has learned firsthand how delicate communities can successfully face floods and other hazards. Together, they conceived a correlation between refugee camps, festivals, and power-damaged cities. They decided to make it their mission to develop a curriculum for emergency preparedness and create a strong, far-reaching network to share knowledge and skills concerned with recovery and healing, resilience and innovation.
This is the Art of Mass Gatherings.
Making an emergency plan can be a daunting task. To make the creation of emergency plans easier, Mollie Quinlan-Hayes of South Arts has been developing an online planning tool. Kowal was asked to provide some key data for this tool. What results should be an easy application where event producers can enter personal data, such as size of event, venue type, etc. to generate a safety plan.
Streamlining the process seems like a great idea, but there are aspects of emergency preparedness and response for events that are best learned from seeing it done well, in person.
The Art of Mass Gatherings Symposium is unique in that it offers participants the chance to be a part of an experiential learning model, a learning style that offers users a transformative experience.
There are four key sectors that, when integrated, lead to successful mass gatherings and expert event preparedness. These are Safety, Sustainability, Community Engagement, and Accessibility.
Event Safety encompasses everything from planning for weather, fire, medical emergency, to plans for crowd control, water / food / waste, active threats, and plans for a contingency venue.
At the heart of Sustainability is changing single-use models to multi-use models. This involves creating resilient and multi-use event systems complete with back-up plans in terms of water, food, and waste, as well as transportation optimizations for special events to make them more inclusive and equitable as well as safe.
Community Engagement starts with transparency and honesty to create strong and lasting relationships. If time is taken to create these relationships, events can garner an authentic, organic reach. When the time comes to ask for volunteers from a community, they will respond quickly and positively, due to their loyalty and commitment to their neighborhoods.
Our model also challenges event producers and staff to think about Accessibility – not just for disabilities. For starters, how would your project be changed to be accessible to other languages, cultures, genders, ages, extreme weather, or modes of transport?
To become well versed at event preparedness, it’s necessary to connect with lots of different experts, each with their own expertise. Why not gather all the experts at once to spread knowledge more efficiently? We suggest that event producers hold an Art of Mass Gatherings symposium at the site of an event. This way, participants can have a direct, concrete experience as well as the chance to observe and reflect upon what they’ve seen and learned. Concrete experience coupled with reflection is important in conceptualizing plans for subsequent events.
We believe that if event organizers and producers do this sort of exercise, then they’d be better at creating and producing events.
In June, Denver PRIDE hosted an Art of Mass Gatherings Symposium in which festival organizers directly participated in mapping out comprehensive preparatory emergency plans.
Experts from the field came together to host skill sharing workshops for aspiring event producers, venue managers, attendees, and even the public. The symposium was well received and we’ve already fielded queries about duplicating it in different contexts around the country.
Overview of our Inaugural Symposium and General Expectations for the Art of Mass Gatherings Symposium
Our Art of Mass Gatherings began with a land acknowledgement recognizing the tribal history and current indigenous relationships to the area. Daniel Stange, Director of Mobilization and School Board Director of Sheridan School District 2, and Raul Chavez, Capitan of Danza Kalpulli Huitzilopochtli, spoke together, contextualizing Two Spirit in such a way that resonated with our presence at Denver PRIDE.
This acknowledgement underscored the importance of inviting elders and culture bearers to participate and speak directly. We deeply appreciate acknowledging the cultural history of a place; land acknowledgements help us see beyond their present time and experience, and allow us to glimpse into history and better appreciate our present.
Experts Brooke Dilling, Ty Hubbard, Matt Eaton, Bill Germain, and Matthew Ché Kowal opened the inaugural event a case study of the 5 Points Jazz Fest, a festival that has had a very successful run in Denver. While other festivals have come and gone, this one has doubled in size. They covered managing and marketing this event, along with adding sustainability options, attracting dedicated volunteers, and organizing everything from water, waste, stage/structure design and more.
Kowal and Dilling followed up the case study with an intimate look at the importance of magnifying communication in order to increase safety and security through community involvement.
Designing culturally-competent communications and fostering ethical, professional, fair and consistent relationships based on collective leadership is paramount to increasing safety at any large-scale event. The day of the show, symposium participants not only learned how to alert attendees about the safety plan, but they also learned the importance of having an evacuation plan and emergency script. The symposium also gave tips about ways to engage the audience and volunteers with elements such as music, humor, art, and design.
Prior to large gatherings, it’s important to set an example of mindfulness. Directing attendees attention to their immediate situation and context creates feelings of empathy: attendees begin to think of themselves not as individual people attending an event, but as people who are part of something bigger than themselves, making them more ready to assist in the event of an emergency.
At our inaugural event, Matt Eaton, Aaron Molander, and Eliote Durham collaborated on security and crowd management, demonstrating how to deescalate and negate any potential crowd conflicts by designing effective crowd-flow. They also provided tips for monitoring and managing crowds and stressed the importance of coordinating with local police agencies, being trauma-informed, and well versed mental health emergencies.
Managing water and waste are paramount to setting up a successful event. At the Art of Mass Gatherings symposium, experts Megan Lane and Janet Burgesser discussed and shared best practices in 3-stream waste management, including reducing waste from food vendors and reducing generators on food trucks with shore power. In addition, they explained the pros and cons of plastic composting, and emphasized the utility of tap water distribution trees for reducing plastics as well as providing resilience against the summer heat. Setting up good relationships with service providers for collection and disposal was also emphasized.
The Arts of Mass Gatherings Symposium included two lunchtime Keynotes. Event marketing professional Eliote Durham of BD+2 inspired us with “Why we do what we do?,” and Steven Adelman of Adelman Law Group followed with an engaging bout of “Risk Management Jeopardy.”
Following the Keynotes, Kowal presented an overview and an inside look at stages and structures at the June symposium. There is a lot of planning behind setting up the stages and structures of a mass gathering. Kowal reviewed certification options, action plans for striking during emergencies, including weather, techniques for anchoring and anticipating wind loads, and how to coordinate with structure/stage providers.
Additionally, AOMG teaches the basics of both entertainment power and temporary power. At the June event, Stephen Collum of Sunbelt Rentals spoke on AV systems, food vendors, and more – all systems that can be quite daunting. He addressed all the details for setting up power, including outlining appropriate distribution systems and different systems used for food vendors Vs. main stages. Participants learned the difference between “Single-phase power” and “Three-phase power” alongside options in temporary HVAC and cooling stations. Systems will have to overlap for basic festival power and disaster response. Participants also learned basic strategies for reducing fuel, emissions, and were introduced to emerging technologies and techniques such as cardioid arrays to reduce sound pollution.
The City of Denver Special Event Liaison Nathaniel Hayden, Denver Lieutenant Scott Buccieri, and Assistant Chief Planning, Preparedness and Logistics James Robinson spoke on the topic of Unified Command Center. Since there will be new national safety requirements in the upcoming years, our agenda included testing and implementing the new 2020 Denver Emergency Medical Plans requirements. The new approach included modified FEMA incident command system protocol, explanation of interagency roles and responsibilities, as well as a review of coordinated response to emergencies.
For our Denver symposium, and for all AOMG symposiums, the focus is on harm reduction. Stacey Forrester presented on this topic, highlighting the challenge that event producers face, as they must first see and then understand the culture of a community before educating this culture on ideas of “harm.” Then, a commitment must be made to creating a culture of health in a venue. Event producers can do this by using simple language for safety plans and staff trainings. For example, clearing drinks from tables in a timely way and including appealing non-alcoholic options can both increase the health-consciousness of an environment.
The Art of Mass Gatherings Symposium also addressed several accommodations event producers can implement to address neurodiversity, and how to apply optimizations for deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees. Catherine Beeson of the Colorado Symphony and Steven Hardy Braz, psychologist and ASL interpreter outlined how event programming should be considerate and dynamic for all patrons; through coordination with networks and communities, the AOMG introduces participants to universal design tools, resources, and strategies that can enhance stage programming. One example of this would be including sign language interpreters for musical and spoken segments of the event.
Finally, the Arts of Mass Gatherings Symposium addresses the role of supporting community resilience. Arts professionals and arts organizations play a large role in maintaining and boosting community resilience, since they possess many of the skills and connections necessary to locate, communicate with, and host people. Tom Clareson of Lyrasis expanded upon the role of performing arts in community resilience, showing how arts organizations and professionals innately possess the skills required for advanced preparation – skills which, when implemented well, can really enhance a community’s ability to bounce back from adversity. People have always sought out the arts as methods of recovery, forms of therapy, or brick-and-mortar places of refuge: arts venues have often opened their doors to people in search of shelter during emergencies.
You like what you see, and you want to host your very own Art of Mass Gatherings Symposium. What can participants expect, in a nutshell, from the symposium?
The Art of Mass Gatherings uses an experiential learning model to help event producers understand how to plan and run events from the inside out. Matt Kowal, co-founder of Majestic Collaborations, Inc, and host of the inaugural AOMG, pledges that after experiencing the symposium, “you too can take an event, and hold a symposium inside of the event. Use some outside experts and local resources – build a network and follow up with more in-depth workshops in content areas”
Mass gatherings are a ripe training ground for skill sharing between creatives, event producers, and the agencies and businesses that serve our communities.
Performers, organizers, promoters, vendors, audiences, and even the public can be leveraged with proper planning and communication. Providing clear understanding of the myriad of systems involved, including water, waste, electricity, communications, and shelter will allow everyone to collaborate in better times of celebration and crisis. Through collaborations like these, we empower ourselves to collectively advance and enhance the power of gatherings.