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Rage Against the Mean

Rock Against Racism teams up with Penn Avenue artists

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Last summer, the Thomas Merton Center on Penn Ave. in Garfield was preparing to host its annual Rock Against Racism event in Schenley Park, just as the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative was in the throes of readying its own Penn Avenue Festival. As both were going into promotions overdrive, each one realized that they had more in common than a few performing bands.

"We came to a rather impractical realization that not only were we sharing a lot of the same artists, they were on the same day," says Jeffrey Dorsey, arts district manager for the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative. The groups quickly decided to join forces, so this year's Penn Avenue Rocks Against Racism festival will be held on Aug. 23, on a blocked-off section of Penn Avenue bordering Friendship and Garfield.

"We're locating it in an area -- in Garfield -- where we see racism's effect more prevalently," says Tim Vining, director of the Merton social justice organization. The lack of economic advantages in Garfield points to the lack of attention given to historically black districts of the city, he adds. "Hopefully, [the location] will make the message less abstract, more concrete."

With its new moniker, the festival hopes to merge the performance- and issue-oriented missions of the two organizations. The lineup reflects that combination: Penn Avenue and Merton rock-regulars like Barrett Black and Soma Mestizo meet up with flamenco dancers, slam poets, storytellers, the ACLU and the activist radio and television show Democracy Now. If Vining and Dorsey's hopes are fulfilled, the newly combined festival will realize the wishes of each camp without compromising either.

"What the [Penn Avenue Arts Festival] was always about was exhibiting and involving the artists and organizations on the Avenue, to tell everyone what they're about," says Dorsey. "It was interesting to us that [the Merton Center] was leaving Penn Avenue to hold their event. We just asked if they'd consider bringing it here."

"[PAAI's] access to arts in this area is beyond what we had, so we'll see more use of various art forms than before," says Vining. "But we're hoping that the emphasis of this being a festival against racism doesn't get lost. Hopefully, the combination of speakers and artists will [attract people] for the art or for the music and get them thinking about racial justice."

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