Film Fest, Mardi Gras Prom, Kissidugu dance classes and performances[ By Kendra Walker ]
This month, Crested Butte has numerous opportunities to celebrate, learn from and honor the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) community. From inspirational West African dance performances and classes, powerful and educational film screenings, to a new community Mardi Gras event, Black History Month is full of exciting ways for folks to celebrate and advocate for inclusion and equity in the Gunnison Valley.
“Our goal this year is to create annual black events that this community looks forward to and rallies behind,” said Chloe Bowman, founder of the Melanin Mountain Project. “The passion and the excitement around wanting to learn has really had an upsurge in the last couple of years and we are so thrilled to foster that in really creative and intentional ways.”
The Melanin Mountain Project aims to implement grassroots structure and action in the Gunnison Valley of inclusion and equity for people of color. The goal is to foster a community in which Black visitors feel valid, understood and valued. Together with Crested Butte’s Black Lives Matter Community Coalition (BLMCC), Melanin Mountain Project has initiated several equity and inclusion efforts for the community, including the painting of the Black Lives Matter mural on Elk Avenue, Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) training to town and school district employees and the first ever Juneteenth celebration in Crested Butte.
“Our big focus this year is supporting a positive experience for BIPOC who live here or visit,” said Willa Williford, BLMCC committee member. Williford explained now that the BLM paint has faded, the momentum of the group has shifted this year to focus on the following: 1. Working with the town of Crested Butte on a new standard operating procedure for filing complaints with the Marshal’s Office that has recently been enacted, 2. Bringing celebratory community events to the Gunnison Valley to celebrate black entrepreneurs, influencers, artists, athletes, etc. and 3. Looking at how BIPOC who live here or visit are being welcomed and having a good experience.
“Last year was an exciting demonstration of our efforts, and we want to build on that and operate on a sustainable level,” said Williford, noting a successful 2022 with Juneteenth celebrations, trivia nights, a banned book fair and continued engagement with the town of Crested Butte.
Black History Film Fest and Mardi Gras Prom
In honor of Black History Month, there are several events this month supporting the Melanin Mountain Project and the BLMCC’s work. Last week kicked off the celebrations with a Black History Trivia Night at the Center for the Arts. Melanin Mountain Project is also hosting the Black History Film Fest, with film screenings throughout the month at the Majestic Theatre. The next movie screenings include Emancipation on February 13, See Us Heal and This is [Not] Who We are on February 15 and The Harder They Fall on February 27. Films start at 6:30 p.m. and all ticket proceeds benefit Melanin Mountain Project.
Then on Fat Tuesday, February 21, Melanin Mountain Project hosts the Mardi Gras Prom Night at the Talk of the Town. “This is an opportunity for a very locals’ focused, very joyful and celebratory event,” said Williford. The night will include tunes from DJ digitalLovejoint, a fundraising raffle and a crowning of a Mardi Gras Prom King and Queen. Your finest Mardi Gras-meets-prom-meets-Crested Butte costume attire is highly encouraged.
Kissidugu West African
This weekend, the community has the opportunity to connect to the cultural arts and traditions of Guinea during a two-week artist residency featuring Kissidugu West African performances and classes.
“The Kissidugu Foundation supports cultural arts programming in the U.S. through music, dance and education,” explains local Angela Carroll, who helped form the organization with renowned artist and choreographer Fara Tolno. Tolno teaches the West African traditions of Guinea through a blend of storytelling, dance and music and has been coming to the Gunnison Valley for over 20 years to teach classes. “In West Africa, music and dance was taught and revered and honored as valuable. Fara wants to make sure the generations to come learn this music,” said Carroll.
She continued, “An amazing part of the project is that is has brought a lot of the artists involved in the Foundation to the valley. The African arts and value of these art forms is astounding. I really want to try to highlight and showcase these performers because they are so unbelievably talented.”
The performances take place on Friday and Saturday (Feb. 10-11) at the Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. The production includes everything from aerialists and acrobats, to break dancers and traditional African dancers, to a full drum ensemble, balafon player and griot singer, in addition to some local musicians.
Tolno has also been working with local organization Wild Hare Dance to incorporate the Kissidugu dance programming into its local classes, and this weekend’s performances will include an opening act from the Wild Hare youth dance program. Community dance and drum classes are also open to everyone this Sunday, February 12 to work with the visiting artists.
“You don’t have to know anything, just show up,” said Carroll. “We’ll have everyone from 5 to 85 years old in these drum classes. These artists are passionate about making things accessible and welcoming for everybody. It’s accessible, physically good, mentally good, spiritually good. It’s good for your well-being to play and gather together and celebrate.”
In addition to promoting cultural arts programming and education, the Kissidugu Foundation also supports a school that it built in Guinea, which has brought opportunities for local collaboration with Crested Butte Elementary School. “This is our third year that we’ve worked with the school. We’re connecting our kids here with the kids in Guinea,” said Carroll, explaining that the CBES students exchange videos and letters with students in Guinea, do research projects on West Africa and present on their cultural learnings. The students will also get to spend two weeks with the visiting artists and work on projects together in the classroom. On February 16, the CB Elementary School will showcase the students’ work in STEM and art with a performance tying to their relationship and collaboration with the Kissidugu Foundation.
“Not only are we bringing these artists into this theatre show and classes, but we’re also working with our youth in the school and the community,” said Carroll. “It’s an opportunity for these deep, global connections and diverse experiences. We’re connecting this community and the people here to these world class musicians, but it’s also helping sustain a village on the other side of the world. It is deep and so rich and so valuable. I think we could use more of that in our little end-of-the-road valley. It’s good to remember the bigger world out there by using arts as an educational and experiential platform.”
The BLMCC recently finalized a new standard operating procedure with the Crested Butte Marshal’s Office to make it easier and safer to lodge a complaint. When someone files a complaint with the marshals, the complaint goes though the town manager rather than the marshals investigating themselves. “It creates that split and accountability,” said Williford.
Williford said the group plans to continue to work with the town on other potential policies. “Since our group is oriented toward accountability, now we are focusing on how to ensure a welcome and safe environment for people of color living and visiting our community, look at the systems and see where we are needed to intervene” she said.
The BLMCC and Melanin Mountain Project’s fundraising efforts this month are aimed to help expand their Juneteenth celebrations this summer. “We want to go bigger and better and bring amazing artists to the valley,” said Williford. “With Juneteenth being on a Monday this year, we really want to take advantage of the long holiday weekend and offer incredible events throughout the weekend.”
Williford noted that the BLMCC is looking for event committee volunteers to help plan Juneteenth, and they are also looking for two additional board members. “The only required qualification is that you are passionate and in alignment with the group’s mission and values.” If you are interested in becoming a BLMCC board member, email Andrea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Williford said the BLMCC has received positive feedback on some of the changes in Crested Butte since 2020, and feels the town is heading in the right direction with inclusion and equity. “Change comes with persistence and diligence,” she said. “My hope is that we can continue this ongoing collaboration and add momentum to this diligent activism.”
And while the Kissidugu Foundation is separate from the Melanin Mountain Project and BLMCC, Carroll said the organizations very much collaborate and support each other. “We believe in what the other is doing and it aligns so well. Being a small town, we love to team up and support each other because our events align in celebration of cultural arts and Black history. Even through these separate groups, we uplift each other and the community,” she said. “There’s a Susu word in Guinea that means ‘We are together.’ Every human on the planet and all the water and trees and mountains. Together we rise. We uplift each other. We are all together.”