When Separate Equals Hungry

A 2-part feature exploring food insecurity.

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Photo Credit:
African Festival of the Arts founder Patrick Woodtor. Image courtesy Africa House International


I spoke with Patrick Seingbey Woodtor, CEO of Africa International House USA, Inc. and Founder of the African Festival of the Arts, which is celebrating its 34th year. As I spoke to my friend, we laughed at the time that has somehow flown by so quickly. Who knew that the first African Arts Festival held in Hyde Park’s Harper Court directly in front of Patrick’s shop, ‘Window to Africa,’ would have come this far?

And yet Patrick say’s, “But of course, we had this vision in mind. You don’t establish something of great importance and significance with the idea that it will be a great one-time wonder. Whether we create such affairs to impact and make a difference in the community and the world or not.” He goes on to say that he had attended school here at Northwestern, met and married, moved back to Liberia then returned as an entrepreneur.  The festival initially served several purposes. It was of course a natural marketing tool for his business endeavors but more importantly, because Chicago’s African American community had one the strongest and more viable Black business community in the USA than most urban cities, it made perfect sense. It also had a very large informed African American community whose consciousness transcended most and accepted Africa as the continent of its dominant ancestors. Further, Black arts and culture in Chicago is top notch so the setting made sense.

Patrick shares that the festival’s humble beginnings in Harper’s Court exceeded the organizers' expectations as well as the attendees. Those of us who were part of the planning and in attendance as participants or audience members remember how crowded it was and how exciting it was. How can we forget the Fashion presentation of Afro-centric designs accompanied by the parade of exotic animals?  Yes, we modeled with lynx’, ocelots, young bobcats, parrots, and snakes. It was pageantry at its best.

The following year’s success indicated that they had outgrown the spot and from there they moved to 47th St across from the Lake. The challenge there came from the then Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle’s constituents who complained that the noise would be too loud. The city got involved and tests were conducted which determined that the sound from the African Arts Festival was less than the daily noise the residents experienced daily from the lake shore drive traffic.
Patrick explains. “The genesis for the Festival started Window to Africa‘s production of outdoor events in Harper’s court which took place over 4 to 5 years which included a group of entrepreneurs consisting of Hair Braiders, Vegetarian food vendors, barbers and artists. Then we formed a committee of people interested in promoting African arts and culture which functioned for another two or three years. The success of those programs emerged as the African Arts Festival which we incorporated in 1981.  

We had always planned from that point forward to obtain sponsorship.” Patrick says that sponsors did not come until the sixth year. “According to his recollection, “The biggest obstacle was the name.” Over and over again, he was told by Blacks and whites in corporate America to change the name, to get rid of the word African. It was the sixth year when the festival moved to the Field Museum. From that point on, sponsorship grew,  the programming grew, the audience grew, promotions expanded, and media exposure continued to grow. He pays tribute to Bank One who came on board as their first corporate sponsor because of the work that the BRR agency did to garner sponsors. Others followed making a huge difference. then a Black hair care product came on board and the sponsorship blew up and the African Arts Festival was on the map.

He also acknowledges the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs for extending the olive branch to take the festival home to the DuSable Museum in the African American community. The accessibility made a major difference as did the familiarity of the environment. The idea of feeling that they would be in a more welcoming place was a game changer. The African Arts Festival was on the move.


In 2008, due to the national strain of the financial crisis, The African Arts Festival hit a devastating bump in the road.  “Sadly, Patrick says, “It’s never bounced back to its high point.”  He says that they lost 75% to 80% of their sponsorship. They have yet to recover. The good news is that they had that period of exposure and introduction that spanned the city, state and national to international coverage. It was a great period during which vendors traveled internationally to participate as did artists and others who traveled nationally to be a part of the AAF. That exposure has continued to serve the festival well. The planners have the vendor information as well as participants info which they continue to utilize.

Though he’s not happy about the sponsorship decline he’s excited and grateful for the accomplishment of the festival’s mission which is to increase, introduce and establish an exchange of experience and information about the various African and African American cultures, food, language, dress, music, dance and more. This aspect of interaction has grown, and the results will continue to evolve and reveal themselves over time.

Patrick says that the pandemic may have impacted many others but from his perspective, it did not affect the outcome of the festival. According to him, “The greatest impact was the ‘Obama Effect’-- the thinking of ad and marketing agencies that Blacks no longer needed special budgets and included them in the general market which consequently limited consideration and money to be directed to those special marketing events that once garnered their support.  Not only did the budgets go to the Hispanic market but so did the jobs in those agencies that once were held by Blacks. The new hires focused more on the Hispanic market and that has not changed. The major Black-owned agencies were also hard hit and had to adjust.”
Patrick explains that the loss in sponsorship resulted in a decrease in attendance from 100,000 daily to 40,000 or less. Over time we’ve gone up some and now we’re more like 400 to 1000  attendees down daily.


Patrick asks, “So what do you do? We are the African Arts Festival, that’s who we are, and our mission is what it is. We had to rely on relationships, and return to old-school marketing, promoting, and spreading the word. We use flyers, posters, phone banks, radio, emails, and social media, for the most part, to get the word out. The good news is that the dates have not changed, and the people look for us.”  However, he shared that this year there was some protest from a sector of the community, complaining that the cost has become too high. So, the festival planners listened and heard them. WVON is sponsoring Friday as ‘Free Day.
Patrick is elated about the prospect because he has always wanted people to attend for at least two days because there’s so much to experience. So, if you purchase a ticket, return on Free Friday, and indulge in the experience even more.


FRIDAY IS FREE for EVERYONE! WVON is sponsoring a FREE FEST FRIDAY, opening on Sept 1!

• We have a performance lineup that highlights the music of the African Diaspora. Featuring old-school funk-CAMEO, R&B-Freddie Jackson, Soul & Jazz-Maysa, traditional African drumming and storytelling-Mamadou Diabate and Percussion Mania (Mali), jazz impresario Dee Alexander (Chicago), Reggae-Gyptian (Jamaica), Afrofusion-Wazumbians (Ghana), Gospel-Dorothy Norwood, The Victory Travelers, & Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir, Latin & Jazz sounds-Crosswind (Chicago), ILE AIYE (Brazil), HipHop-Buckshot (Black Moon), Dead Prez (NYC/Florida) and more!

• Honorary Grand Yeye & Baba - The Honorable Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun and Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina  

• We are developing a GREAT 50th Anniversary Hip Hop Experience featuring Buckshot and Prez that includes a call for movement members to be intentional about supporting Black Culture.

• We are also celebrating the International Decade for People of African Descent as proclaimed by the United Nations.

• The Family Friendly Festival experience has special interest pavilions with something for everyone - the popular Drum Village, where all are welcome to dance and drum, and the Children's Pavilion, where the young have supervised interactive activities to enjoy. Check your health vitals at the Health & Wellness Pavilion and learn about African culture and spirituality in the Heritage and Ancestral Grove Pavilions. The Fine Art Pavilion, with featured Artist Stuart McClean, has collectible art for every collector.  McClean is presenting his limited "Urban Warriors" series that was inspired by the Hip Hop movement.
AFF has partnered with the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago - Maria Drell -  to present the Afro-Brazilian music and dance group  Ile Aiye from Bahi, Brazil. The group will hold a pre-festival event at the South Shore

• Cultural Center and will present a series of workshops during the 4-day Festival and a performance Sept. 4

• Visual ops:  In-studio and on-site that represent the Festival Pavilions and Villages:  art-traditional and contemporary, cuisine, fashion, drummers, dancers, and more!  
It goes without saying that the vendors will bring that international bazaar of fabulous wares,
from fashion to jewelry to visual art to sculpture and so much more, the food court always delivers the best tastes from around the African diaspora form the motherland to America: Piri piri chicken, Mozambique, Jollof rice and egusi soup, Nigeria to Fried Chicken, greens macaroni & cheese, Fried green tomatoes, etc. Don’t deny yourself an international experience in your community.

Photo Credit:
Image courtesy of Africa House International

About Author:

Visionary Kai EL´ Zabar has worked as CEO of arts organizations and as editor, writer and multimedia consultant accumulating a significant number of years in experience as an executive, journalist,publisher, public relations, media training, marketing, internal and external communications. Kai currently continues her life’s work as Editor-in-Chief Of Chicago News Weekly where she has resumed her column, “E NOTES.” She is ecstatic to be in the position to grace Chicago and the world with a publication that articulates the Black voice.



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