Features | World Unite Festival – Celebrating multiculturalism in Leeds

With the Union’s “World Unite Festival” once again proving a hit, LS takes a look at how it encouraged us all to embrace multiculturalism in Leeds.

When I first moved to Leeds, it surprised me to hear people talk about how multicultural they found it. Being half English, half Greek and growing up in Brussels, Belgium, meant it was strange for me to come to a city that, according to a 2011 census, was 85.1% white. Ethnically, I thought it was the least multicultural place I’d lived in, but also that I was the minority in thinking that.

That might be why I was a bit surprised by how big the World Unite Festival was.

Organised by the Leeds University Union’s societies and Intercultural Ambassadors, the aim of the annual Leeds World Unite Festival (or “WUFest”) is “to learn about, experience and celebrate cultures from all over the world.” WUFest is a week full of photo exhibitions, talks, film screenings, language classes to learn the essentials like ‘How to Flirt in Polish’, jewellery and craft markets, calligraphy writing sessions, pub quizzes, parties, and most importantly… the food. Possibly the most impressive turnout was the sheer range of food stalls, from Yemeni to Barbarruritos to a crêpe stall. As a food lover, deciding what to have for lunch took twice as long as normal, but the shredded pork burgers were worth it.

1st year Broadcast Journalism student, Chad Newton, said, “My favourite part of the World Unite Festival would have definitely been the food in the foyer. It was something a bit different and it would have been easy to try different cuisines that way if I had got them on time before they stopped appearing, though I definitely would next time.”

But food’s not the only way WUFest celebrates multiculturalism. The University of Leeds has one of the UK’s leading International Relations programmes, so naturally, WUFest took advantage of the impressive range of staff and lecturers to host a series of talks throughout the week. Subjects ranged from the potential for peace in different areas of the world to discussions about Leeds University’s own multiculturalism.

Think! Politics Talks Peace, a series of TED-style talks with Dr Alexander Beresford, Dr Adam Tyson and Benedict Docherty, lecturers and PhD researcher at the Leeds Politics and International Studies department, was one of the week’s first talks and a definite hit. As Chad Newton said, “The content was good and I learnt about issues that I wasn’t aware of before, like the problems in Indonesia.”

Thomas Love, a 2nd year Biochemistry student also told LS, “The talks were delivered in a great TED Talks-style format from some really interesting and thought provoking speakers, and something that I would be really interested in attending again in the future. Apart from expanding peoples view of the world and of other cultures which is important in today’s multicultural society they are always great fun and well run events.”

Most strikingly, however, were some of the responses to how accomodating people found WUFest. As a festival dedicated to the sharing of cultures, how could it possibly go wrong?

Coming from a mixed background, it’s sometimes difficult for me to understand how “foreign” some places seem to people. I went to a European School that was focused on merging cultures and ethnicities, so what Chad suggested when asked if such festivals were worth having, was an eye-opener. He told LS, “When I first heard about the World Unite Festival I dismissed it because usually events with ‘world’ in them are just for international students. I think more events should have a multicultural touch, rather than simply having a standalone World Festival, because that would integrate it more and it might appeal to more people.”

WUFest’s Think! Intercultural Studies interactive talk by Haynes Collins, Senior Teaching Fellow of Intercultural Studies, discussed the potential downside to showcasing different cultures at a festival, looking closely at the many cultural societies in Leeds. With questions recently rising as to whether or not to ban cultural societies, Think! Intercultural Studies looked at whether they in fact force people into one “stereotype” and stop students integrating into the student community. And even though the talk ended with a general agreement that cultural societies are in fact a benefit to the university, it opened the ground to new perspectives and ideas many of us hadn’t thought of.

Rashmi Senevirtne, a 2nd year Chemisty student who was last year’s Intercultural Ambassador and this year a Union Volunteer, summed it up: “It made me think about what celebrating culture actually is. I still think it’s a good idea to organise the festival as it does bring everyone together – it helps people recognise others differences and also respect it. I do understand that for some people it can make them feel left out if they don’t think they fit into a particular group or an “expected group”, but generally by the time WUFest comes around, people have found their friends, know what things they like and in fact learn more about themselves. Having been involved two years in row and not being part of a cultural group I’ve had the freedom to help everyone, which is really what the WUFest is about – uniting everyone so that essentially you can work well together.”

Danai Howard

Leave a Reply