When we’re not supporting diverse communities across America to present free, high-caliber outdoor concerts in transformed public spaces, we’re harnessing the power of music in other exciting ways—including supporting festivals, conferences, and field-building events that help expand access and nurture a vibrant, equitable arts and music ecosystem. One great example is our decade-long-plus partnership with Folk Alliance International, an international arts nonprofit founded in 1989 to help serve, strengthen, and engage the global folk music community through preservation, presentation, and promotion.

Each year, Folk Alliance presents the folk genre’s largest annual gathering (of the same name), and last month, over 3,000 members of the folk community gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, for this year’s Folk Alliance International festival. Diverse folk artists, cultural bearers, and industry professionals convened for four exciting days and nights of artist showcases (including many in hotel rooms—which were transformed into intimate performance spaces), educational panels, workshops, and networking opportunities, all serving to connect folk music practitioners and leaders and sustain the folk community and genre—which includes a variety of sonic palettes such as Appalachian, Americana, blues, Celtic, global roots, hip-hop, spoken word, Zydeco, and more.

During this year’s conference, several members from across the Levitt network presented the panel “Beyond Land Acknowledgement: Fostering Authentic Relationships with Indigenous Communities” to a packed room of attendees on the hotel’s top floor. Moderated by Levitt Foundation Executive Vice President Vanessa Silberman and featuring the perspectives of Levitt Shell Sioux Falls Executive Director Nancy Halverson, Levitt Pavilion Denver Communications Manager Helen Gover (of Diné, Pawnee, and Choctaw descent), and Levitt artist, activist, and educator Frank Waln (of Sicangu Lakota/Lakota Nation descent), the lively discussion explored how they are approaching conversations, developing relationships, and planning impactful programming in partnership with Native artists and Indigenous nations in their regions.

From left, Helen Gover of Levitt Pavilion Denver, Levitt Foundation Executive Vice President Vanessa Silberman, Levitt Shell Sioux Falls Executive Director Nancy Halverson, and Levitt artist and Sicangu Lakota educator and activist Frank Waln representing the Levitt network at this year’s Folk Alliance International conference.

“Beyond Land Acknowledgement” was first presented at the 2023 Levitt National Convening, instilling Levitt network attendees with actionable insights on fostering trust amongst community partners representing historically minoritized groups. This time around, the panel was presented to a broader audience hailing from around the world. “We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to expand the conversation beyond the Levitt network, sharing best practices and considerations for authentically and respectfully engaging with both Native artists and Native communities when creating artistic programming and events,” Silberman explained. “Deepening these learnings with the Folk Alliance International community directly aligns with our efforts to expand and nurture an equitable arts ecosystem that uplifts everyone, including the many Native communities indigenous to these lands.”

Levitt Denver’s Gover—who, on both versions of the panel, shared her dual perspective as the creator of Levitt Denver’s All My Relations Celebration, a festival of Indigenous music and art, and as an Indigenous person—believes that expanding access to the panel provided Folk Alliance International attendees, particularly those unsure of how to engage with Indigenous artists and communities, with the seeds of knowledge to get started on creating culturally-cognizant live music experiences.

“Oftentimes, non-Indigenous-led festivals and venues have pre-meditated thoughts and biases on what Indigenous music is supposed to look [or sound] like. This panel enabled Folk Alliance attendees to address that bias and to understand Native communities and music are more than what’s mainstreamed,” Glover said. “Even after the panel, attendees continued these conversations with us to get a further understanding of how to be respectful.”

Last summer, Levitt Shell Sioux Falls partnered with the Wonkini Initiative and South Dakota State University to present the All My Relatives * Mitakuye Owas’iƞ * Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ * Festival—which, amongst music performances, featured a fashion show highlighting a vibrant assortment of traditional Indigenous clothing.

Halverson spoke about the origin and development of the Innoskate Festival in 2022, a five-day event—made possible through a partnership with the Oglala Lakota Nation and the Smithsonian—that combined skateboarding with free outdoor music concerts, panels, and more, held both in Sioux Falls and at the Pine Ridge Reservation 300 miles away. That event’s impact (attracting over 15,000 attendees) inspired Halverson and her team to co-create the All My Relatives * Mitakuye Owas’iƞ * Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ * Festival the following summer in 2023. Levitt Sioux Falls partnered with the Wokini Initiative and South Dakota State University for the celebration, which attracted 9,000 audience members from throughout South Dakota and featured mainstage performances by Frank Waln, Indigenous, and Jackie Bird—along with a fashion show, arts panel, songwriting workshop, Native vendors and service organization booths, and more.

“We have learned so much from these partnerships, the need to be intentional about building authentic partnerships, meeting folks halfway, remaining flexible and working within each other’s cultural needs, and that above all else, building trust takes time,” Halverson said.

Waln, who performed at both Levitt Pavilion Denver and Levitt Shell Sioux Falls last summer during their respective Native festivals, thanked Levitt for being at the forefront of collaborating and co-curating with Native musicians and artists. He further explained that many Native musicians function as independent artists and exist outside of the margins of the entertainment system—which is important to remember when identifying, booking, and presenting Native artists. “We need to bridge the gap and rewrite the playbook,” said Waln.

Additionally, Gover believes many organizations at the intersection of art and community can take additional cues from her team’s approach to connect with Indigenous communities. For instance, she shared that Levitt Denver consistently maintains lines of contact with Indigenous artists, communities, and organizations year-round. Moreover, she suggested Native artists and community members are given a leadership role in such partnerships: “This allows for my community [of Indigenous people] to come together and make the impact needed through music,” Gover explained.

Sicangu Lakota singer-songwriter and activist Frank Waln—who fuses traditional Lakota instruments with hip hop and electronica—performed at Levitt Pavilion Denver’s All My Relations Celebration festival last August.

In addition to the panel, the Levitt Foundation also played a supporting role in Folk Alliance’s International Folk Music Awards, the premier accolades for industry leaders and creators in the folk music industry. Silberman had the honor of presenting the Rising Tide Award, which celebrates artists under 30 whose music and activism are creating waves of change; this year’s winning talent was Guatemalan and Indigenous Mayan singer-songwriter Sara Curruchich, whose songs blend Spanish with the Kaqchikel language native to her people. She’s the first musician to use the latter in popular music for an international audience, and through her music and women’s and Indigenous people’s rights activism, Sara’s voice and message of love, awareness, and respect have led many to regard her as a beacon of light and hope. “Sara is a shining example of the future of folk music—a future that’s sophisticated, multifaceted, and multilingual: qualities that make up the community’s heart at its core and resonate deeply with the Levitt Foundation,” said Silberman during the awards ceremony.

Another exciting facet of Levitt’s partnership with Folk Alliance International is that the annual conference consistently provides Levitt network members opportunities to discover talent and book artists for future music series—a synergy that directly nurtures the folk music ecosystem, explains Folk Alliance International Marketing & Programming Director Cindy Cogbill. “Levitt’s support is key on multiple fronts as Folk Alliance International’s mission to preserve, promote, and present folk music is closely tied to Levitt’s mission to strengthen the social fabric of America by presenting free concerts,” said Cogbill. “Levitt is a vital presence for the community as many of our members have grown projects, programs, and nonprofits thanks to Levitt’s support.”

There are many instances of this productive cross-pollination. Two beloved Levitt artist groups, Paul Thorn (with the Blind Boys of Alabama) and Flor De Toloache, are each Folk Alliance members and were headliners of the 2018 and 2019 Levitt National Tours, respectively, bringing communities across America together through free, live music reflective of our country’s multicultural melting pot. There is also Kansas City’s Celebrate AMERI’KANA Music & Arts Festival—also supported by the Levitt Foundation—which grew from the vision of former Folk Alliance International board member Enrique Chi (whose Latin GRAMMY-nominated band, Making Movies, has also performed on many a Levitt stage!). Cogbill says these are just a few of countless examples.

So, what’s next for Folk Alliance International? For starters, a change of scenery: Next year’s conference will be in Montréal, where the event has also successfully taken place in previous years, notes Folk Alliance International Development & Partnership Director Alex Mallet. And, as always, there will be plenty of artist showcases, summits, and networking and learning opportunities—making for yet another impactful gathering proudly supported by the Levitt Foundation.

“Consistent support is vital for organizations such as Folk Alliance International to create sustainability,” said Mallet. “So being able to count on Levitt’s partnership has been key in keeping steady operations and growth in our programming. Folk Alliance International is deeply thankful for Levitt’s sponsorship over the last decade.”

Here’s to more years of partnering with Folk Alliance International through values-aligned work to nurture a healthy, thriving music ecosystem!

The next Folk Alliance International conference will be February 19-23, 2025.