Sunbird Fest Offers Art and Education in Solidarity With Palestine

Four-day event with intention for Palestinian liberation

Photo by courtesy of Sunbird Festival

When Erika Woollett-Chiba, a visual artist, a musician, and a student at UT-Austin, participated in the campus protests against Israel’s attack on Palestine, she particularly bonded with the artistic community she met.

Accompanied by her older sister Mika Woollett-Chiba, a UT alumni, the pair felt disturbed by the intense police presence and the arrests in response to the peaceful gathering. Yet amidst the police brute force, Erika and Mika found a more soothing environment on the lawn, where they met several speakers, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists who took a creative approach to expressing outrage. They spent the evening singing, playing guitar, and bonding with others about their shared outlooks on the Palestinian cause.

Though witnessing the events on April 24 and 29 left the protesters rattled, the experience shocked them into action. After observing the measures taken by the state government and by UT to suppress the protests, they decided the logical next step was to take matters into their own hands and spread their efforts beyond campus grounds.

It occurred to Erika, as a musician, to host a benefit concert. As they continued to meet new people, that plan organically snowballed into something larger. A team soon united to form Sunbird Fest, named after the Palestinian Sunbird that serves as a symbol of freedom and hope.

With six central organizers and a larger community of volunteers, Sunbird is the product of a true grassroots movement. Spearheaded by the Woollett-Chiba sisters, along with an assortment of other UT students, graduates, and other locals, the alliance of protesters has grown into a movement for Palestinian visibility across all of Austin. In a short period, their efforts to form relationships with venues and businesses garnered an overwhelmingly positive response, with numerous spaces receptive to the cause and eager to collaborate.

The mission on Sunbird’s website reads, “We stand together as a community to oppose Zionism and we condemn Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people. Our guiding principles are a commitment to Palestinian liberation, and transparent fundraising for direct aid. We invite anyone that will adhere to these principles to participate and organize your own events here in Austin June 20-23 for Sunbird Fest!”

Photo by courtesy of Sunbird Festival
Sunbird’s programming covers a wide range of activities, including speakers, readings, and workshops in bookstores like Monkeywrench and Alienated Majesty Books, two-stepping at Sagebrush, a comedy show at East Austin Comedy Club, a dance party at Coconut Club. With film screenings, concerts, dances, art markets, art-making, literary events, and more, the festival takes a particularly Austin approach to bringing people together for activism. There’s also a strong emphasis on promoting Palestinian art, music, and films to help give their work exposure.

“We met so many people who wanted to be involved,” shares Mika. “Austin being where SXSW is from made it click that we should recreate SXSW and make it about Palestine.”

Sunbird also provides a gentler option for those who wish to support the people of Gaza but may not be able to risk the arrests or physical harm that are a potential threat at campus protests. Folks can attend Sunbird as an alternative yet concrete way of contributing to the cause and keeping the lives and struggles of Palestinian people in the public sphere.

“There are so many forms of direct action and protest, and one isn’t better than the other,” explains Erika. “Festivals are also a really good way of fundraising.”

The festival will generate cash using several avenues including a huge raffle with many participating Austin businesses as well as door covers, drink sales, and the art market. Proceeds will be split between the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, Help Me Live USA, and 14 other fundraisers that will send money directly to families in Gaza who have connections with Austinites.

Aman Odeh, for example, is an Austin-based pediatrician who traveled to Gaza in April as part of a medical mission. During her journey, she connected with a humanitarian aid nurse in Gaza who referred four different cases to which the festival is donating funds. Each of the cases receiving aid is listed transparently on the Sunbird Fest website. The money raised will assist in a variety of efforts, from evacuating families to setting up medical tents, now that the Israeli military has bombed the majority of hospitals in Gaza.

“The aid is going very directly and building a strong connection between Austinites and people in Gaza,” shares Sam Law, a Jewish graduate student at UT and an organizer on the festival’s finance committee. “In the midst of truly one of the most horrific things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, [Sunbird Fest] is providing a very hopeful and positive story about the Austin community spontaneously coming together to do the right thing, in this moment.”

By fostering joyful experiences and opportunities to collaborate, Sunbird is altering the perception of the pro-Palestinian movement. Despite attempts to paint protesters as violent, aggressive, or bigoted, the festival is revealing the softness behind the intentions of this cause. “[Sunbird Fest] is also a way of showing that [pro-Palestinian citizens] are creative, kind-hearted individuals,” adds Erika. “A lot of us are artists, teachers, and generally caring people. That’s what this movement is made of.”

Visit the Sunbird Fest website for the full schedule and fundraising breakdown.

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Sunbird Fest, Palestine, peaceful protest, UT-Austin, Mika Woollett-Chiba

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