How One Small Town in North Carolina Celebrates Cultural Diversity

With a booming population representative of a wide variety of cultures, the town of Morrisville, North Carolina, has found that its East Meets West festival not only celebrates its diverse residents but serves as a critical means of connecting with the public as well.

This is a guest post by Sarah Williamson-Baker and Sarah Gaskill.

Every fall, the East Meets West festival closes down the main street of Morrisville, North Carolina, for an annual event celebrating the energy and diversity of the community with a day of food, culture, and music from around the world. The award-winning festival is coordinated by the Morrisville Innovation Foundation, a program of the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce, with significant support from the town.

Morrisville is one of the fastest-growing and most diverse towns in North Carolina. The population has grown by more than 200 percent in the last 12 years, and is forecast to grow at a similar pace for the foreseeable future. The town is also younger than many neighboring communities, with 27 percent of the population under the age of 18, and only four percent over the age of 65.

Morrisville has the largest concentration of Asian Indian residents in the region. A 2015 special census of the town of Morrisville showed the population to be 50 percent white, 27 percent Indian American, 13 percent African American, and six percent Hispanic. Four percent identified themselves as having a mixed ancestry of two or more races. More than 30 percent of the town’s residents were born outside the United States.

The Morrisville Town Council includes two of the first Indian Americans elected to office in the state. The council is also firmly rooted in local culture, and sees the East Meets West festival as an opportunity for residents of foreign cultures to experience North Carolina traditions, such as pulled pork and bluegrass music, for the first time.

“One of the most distinct features about Morrisville is its variety of cultures,” said Mayor Mark Stohlman. “The East Meets West festival is incredibly important to the town council as a means of connecting with the public and celebrating the cultures that make our town unique.”

The unique characteristics of Morrisville set the festival apart from others and drew the attention of the National League of Cities (NLC). In March 2017, NLC presented the East Meets West festival with the City Cultural Diversity Award for cities with less than 50,000 residents.

On-stage entertainment at East Meets West varies slightly each year. In 2016, the festival included performances by Chinese students, Indian and Irish dancers, and Middle Eastern belly dancers, as well as a private school band, a youth theater group, and a hip-hop dance group. Past festivals have included blues, reggae and bluegrass groups.

Food vendors at the East Meets West festival. (Town of Morrisville)

Food vendors sell small plates of Italian, Mediterranean, Indian, Peruvian, Irish, Chinese, Mexican and American Southeast cuisine. Community leaders taste and judge foods from around the world, and the public votes and selects their favorites. There are also numerous activities for children, including cultural dancing, face painting, and arts and crafts.

“Families and businesses appreciate the opportunity to celebrate Morrisville’s diversity at the East Meets West festival each year,” said Morrisville Chamber of Commerce President Sarah Gakill. “The Morrisville Innovation Foundation is thrilled to continue partnering with the town on this important initiative, and we invite people from across the region to join us for the 2017 festival on Saturday, September 23.”

The East Meets West festival began as the Taste of Morrisville event in 2011 and has blossomed into a celebration of cultures. Admission to the festival is free. Additional details are available here. The Morrisville Innovation Foundation has coordinated the festival since 2013. The foundation’s mission is to provide the building blocks for economic development, entrepreneurship and civic engagement. The town of Morrisville partners with the foundation through event logistics assistance, staffing and promotion. More information about the Innovation Foundation is available here.

The town of Morrisville took first place in the City Cultural Diversity Awards Program for cities 50,000 and under. The program showcases examples of how cities can achieve excellence in diversity. If your city is interested in issues of inclusion and diversity, we encourage you to join us at one of our constituency group meetings this summer: the 2017 Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, June 21-23, or the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials (NBC-LEO) 2017 Summer Conference, July 20-22, in Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama. Also, this October, learn how to become a more inclusive leader at the NLC University Leadership Summit for Inclusion in sunny San Diego, California.

Featured image courtesy of the town of Morrisville.

About the authors:

Sarah Williamson-Baker is the community relations liaison for the town of Morrisville, North Carolina.

Sarah Gaskill is the president of the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce.