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World Culture Festival to touch down in DC in push for unity 

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to touch down on the National Mall this weekend for the World Culture Festival, a multi-day celebration of diversity and culture seeking to embrace the differences across society.   

Describing the festival as “a celebration that can bridge the gap,” Humanitarian and spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said he hopes the event, expected to bring more than 450,000 attendees to the Mall from more than 180 counties, will bring a moment of relief for people.

“Today, we need more happiness, especially post-COVID, there are so much [many] issues about mental health, and there is depression on one side and aggression and gun violence,” Shankar said in an interview with The Hill. “On the other side, we need to bring everyone together and give this message: ‘See…hey look wake up, we are all one family.’ 

The World Culture Festival will kick off Friday evening at the National Mall and is expected to run through Sunday.

However, in the case of a government shutdown, which would begin at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, the event’s Sunday programming will be moved to a private venue and will only be available through a livestream beginning at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

Friday and Saturday’s programming will not be impacted by the potential shutdown.

The “Olympic-scale celebration” is the culmination of months of work from volunteers at the Art of Living Foundation, a nongovernmental organization founded by Shankar in 1981. 

Over 17,000 individual artists are slated to perform, including choirs with more than 1,000 singers and dance ensembles of 500 people. A number of the groups will represent Native American culture and immigrant communities around the U.S.  

A tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip hop will also take place, featuring singers and rappers alongside 100 background dancers. 

A platform of speakers from around the globe will also be featured, including the former presidents of Nigeria, Tunisia, India, Mongolia and Ecuador, as well as a meditation “for mental peace and for world peace,” yoga sessions, and around 85 food trucks of cuisine from around the world. 

This year marks the festival’s first U.S. location, having previously taken place in New Delhi, Berlin, and Bangalore. 

“Washington, D.C., especially [the] National Mall, is the very center of this continent,” Shankar said. “From there, the message goes throughout the world, and so we chose [the] National Mall.”

Spencer Delisle, the vice president of the International Association for Human Values — the institutional arm of the Art of Living Foundation — has spent nearly 20 years working with the organization around the world. Delisle travelled from Canada to spend the past few months in Washington, D.C. preparing for the event, where he will serve as an emcee. 

Pointing to the divisions he witnesses in the world, Delisle said the venue choice of the National Mall highlights America’s leadership role in the world.  

“I think it’s a great place to take that leadership, bring everyone together,” Delisle said. “Everyone looks to the U.S. for leadership, so I think it’s a nice way that we can…rather than be divided, bring everyone together.” 

The event has drawn support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with at least 20 Democrats and 11 Republicans serving on the reception committee. Involved lawmakers include Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Darin LaHood (R-Ill.).

The World Culture Festival comes amid larger concerns over the deep political polarization in the United States — perhaps best encapsulated by the Jan. 6, 2021 attacks on the U.S. Capitol that led to the second impeachment of former President Trump.

The festival’s stated intentions are to address differences across all aspects of life, whether that be through race, ethnicity, culture or political beliefs. 

Recent studies suggest these topics of disagreement may be more intertwined than what meets the surface. A report released by the American Political Science Association (APSA) showed race divides the U.S. population, often more than any other demographic factor. 

Similarly, a Monmouth University poll released in June found a majority of Americans believe racial and ethnic discrimination is a significant cause of the country’s political divide. These divisions were highlighted in the 2016 and 2020 elections and are already making their way into the upcoming 2024 races. 

But it’s not just the topic of race. Studies show the political divide in the U.S. has continued to grow in recent years as both sides of the aisle become increasingly isolated on a number of other subjects including climate change, economy, law enforcement, and foreign affairs.  

Like Shankar, Delisle hopes the festival will allow people to embrace a difference of opinion and cultures. 

“We may differ on our opinions, and we may think differently but that’s part of the richness also of who we are,” Delisle told The Hill. “Really seeing how we can, instead of just tolerating each other, like seeing how we can celebrate our diversity and that’s kind of the goal of the World Culture Festival.” 

“I think it’s no question that around the world, there’s been a lot of division and isolation, especially over the past three years,” Delisle said. “We just thought…people are craving for… a little more fun and little more connection.” 

Shankar’s solution to bridging the gap for these differences? “A positive energy,” he said. 

“You need a positive energy or anything in life, right? If energies become low or negative, I know you can’t come into any conclusion, you can’t celebrate the diversity, we can’t celebrate our talents,” Shankar said.

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