Sisterly Love

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At Ladyfest Philly, crying is permitted. In fact, when I talk to a group of organizers for the upcoming three-day event, all sitting plaintive and calm in a West Philly apartment over an occasionally corrupted Skype call, more than one of them expresses their intent to watch the festival in tears. This, despite the overwrought and boring typecast of a crying woman, feels like the right answer and a point of well-placed pride for the organizers, given the months they’ve all spent getting the festival off the ground. Negative vibes and detractive feelings will be checked at The Rotunda’s door.

Among the women who speak the most in our informal chat is Grace Ambrose, the heart and soul of Ladyfest Philly’s inception. In a typical setting, this dominance of conversation might be seen as controlling or divisive, but the air of this gathering is anything but typical. Since Ladyfest’s beginnings in Olympia, WA over ten years ago, it has touched down in cities all across the world—from Amsterdam to Toulouse to San Diego—and with it comes a type of organizer, a breed of performer, and a class of participant that practically bleeds gumption and guile. And although there are only 4 days left until their hard work culminates, Ambrose and her team (listed below) are as sharp as ever. I know this when I ask thoughtlessly why the event is exclusively for ladies. “It’s not all ladies!” Tiff Cheng replies, mildly indignant at my slipup, and correcting an often-misunderstood platitude about the exclusivity of Ladyfest. She goes on to explain that there are male allies of the event, and the “Lady” in Ladyfest really means to cover cis-women, trans, genderqueer, intersex, and queer people—not just those who exclusively identify as ladies. I am embarrassed that I didn’t know this, but I see no judgment in the room.

After jumping into conversation with the organizers, who are all volunteers with day jobs and side projects of their own, I learn much more than just what the fest’s title covers. In three days—from Friday the 7th to Sunday the 9th at West Philly’s The Rotunda—Ladyfest will take over with music, workshops, and panels to inform, entertain, and unite under a common goal: creating a safe space for the often voiceless and marginalized. And with bands as wide-ranging and respected as US Girls, Potty Mouth, Screaming Females, Amanda X, Trophy Wife, Aye Nako, and several more, the event couldn’t feel any more inclusive or tightly curated. In addition to musical performances, there will be workshops on everything from Amps & Pedals to Victim-Blaming in the Media, with speakers from in and around the community of Philadelphia. And though Ladyfest can and has been held in locations worldwide, the organizers assure me that Philly plays a special role in their event. They speak of the city, often associated with sports failures and blue-collar struggle, as if it were another organizer in the bookshelf-flanked room.

“Philadelphia is a really responsive city,” Ambrose notes, to which Maria Sciarrino dovetails the point nicely that it’s a city where “women run the town.” Sciarrino, who is herself a musician and user experience designer, begins to list off in a rapid-fire, commanding lilt all the bookers in Philadelphia, most of whom are women. The ability to do this with such ease proves not only that she’s right about women running Philly, but that the Fest is in good hands: a volunteer group of the most informed and interconnected in the city. They also make note to point out that Philly is easily accessible from several points along the East Coast—buses run from Baltimore, D.C., New York, and Boston, among other places. Much like the fest’s target group, however, Philly is often overlooked as it falls in the shadow of larger cities to the north and south.

Though it is exhaustingly difficult to point out which element of Ladyfest Philly (and the Ladyfest brand) will be the most significant and sincerely felt this weekend, the organizers never miss a beat in naming Project SAFE and Women in Transition as the reasons the hard work will have been worthwhile. The two nonprofits are the sole beneficiaries of proceeds from the weekend, where tickets begin at a single-evening price of $10 and go up to a three-day weekend pass at $40. As Ambrose points out, Project SAFE—a nonprofit aimed at providing health advocacy for sex workers—might not always get traditional sources of funding, so for them, the impact of this weekend could be monumental. With the gracious donation of kegs of La Colombe iced coffee, one can imagine a caffeinated, blissful crowd, shining under the influence of mutual respect and contribution.

At the close of my discussion with the group, who had initially livened up with ease then began a slow descent into visible exhaustion, I wondered what they might learn about themselves after the last band plays on Sunday night. With so much focus on the music, the participants, and the nonprofits to support, it seemed likely that very little attention had been paid to the achievements of the organizers themselves and the selfless journey that they had been on. An uncomfortable pause resonates for longer than I expect, and then a previously unheard voice speaks up.

“This is by far the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Jessi Holton tells me. “I feel encouraged that we can do bigger things than we think we’re capable of when we do them together.” As the rest of the group sits in a circle watching me react through an enlarged computer screen, I watch them for first signs of tears, hoping sincerely that they can’t yet see mine.

Organizers: Grace Ambrose, Candice Johnson, Maria Sciarrino, Tiff Cheng, Molly Seegers, Jessi Holton, Kristina Centore, Talia Lev, and Alyssa San Valentin.