Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival Promoted Disability Access Before it was “Cool” - The Mobility Resource

pete-seegerThe Clearwater Festival (The Great Hudson River Revival) held June 16-17 is a music and environmental summer weekend festival held every June at Croton Point Park to raise funds and our collective consciousness about the plight of the Hudson River, rivers everywhere and the imperative to adopt green, environmentally clean practices which support sustainability.

For decades at Clearwater, musicians, singer-songwriters and music poets have performed from the heart with the overarching purpose of uplifting the Clearwater mission, inspiring the community and having fun. The performers and musicians represent a diverse mix of contemporary, traditional and American roots music, family-oriented entertainment, dance and storytelling.

The festival was inspired by Pete Seeger (now 94-years-old) and other founders in 1969 when pollution from the Hudson River was so egregious, there was a die off of animal life and fish once nurtured by the river’s habitat. Varieties of marine life were being reduced and there was a great weakening of the Hudson River watershed which was impacting the future water supply along the riverfront and the river’s tributaries.

All the bucolic fun the river once supported was overthrown as signs went up prohibiting swimming, crabbing and fishing in the PCB laden waters.  To draw awareness, educate and advocate for a clean-up and end to the toxic pollution, Seeger and others decided to build a mythic sloop Clearwater. The sloop would symbolize the mission of advocacy for clean, clear water and would be used to travel the Hudson, educate kids and adults about the river’s plight, and raise funds for its clean-up. Pete Seeger and friends held a series of small fundraising concerts in the Hudson River Valley and at Sandy Hook, New Jersey passing around a banjo to collect donations.

By 1978, the concerts had evolved into a land-based Festival at Croton Point Park, which hosted the Festival for a decade, until organizers relocated it to a college campus because of the park’s landfill pollution problems.  In 1999 the Festival moved back to the park and the shores of the Hudson where the weekend celebration which boasts  over 1,100 volunteers and more than 15,000 guests each year (for three decades) renews the spirit of the Clearwater Community and its commitment to making the world a better place for future generations.

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As such it is America’s oldest and largest annual festival of its kind. Clearwater Community members and Festival attendees who have been supporting Pete (He’s performed at each Festival). will soon include a fourth generation of great grandparents, grandparents, parents, kids dedicated to cleaning up the environment and practicing sustainability.

A  First to Provide Access

Clearwater was one of the first of its kind to provide disability access, and this was well before the American’s With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Pete Seeger has always championed people who are underrepresented and oppressed. Pete and his wife Toshi made a commitment to provide equal access when the disability community, among the most underrepresented citizens of the country came forward early in the evolution of the festival. Pete and founders were way ahead of the curve wanting to make sure that the ideals the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. (nonprofit, 501©(3) organization embodied included everyone and no one was discriminated against or excluded for any reason. That is why this festival is one of the most accessible outdoor festival venues in the country.

This year and for future Clearwater Festivals, the Access Hospitality Tent offered wheelchairs, walkers and volunteers’ assistance throughout the grounds, including rides in golf carts and other motorized vehicles to any of the performing stages or elsewhere. For those who have their own motorized devices like scooters or wheelchairs, each of the five performance stages provides charging stations and there are charging areas throughout the park. The Festival is wired and you can charge your mobile devices at these same areas. There are large, open, designated access areas at the front of all the stages for those with disabilities and their families to maintain easy mobility in the often-packed venues.

On the main stages are American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters. Uplifting cultural diversity, one of the cultures celebrated in the midst of song and sunshine is the deaf culture and its community. The ASL Interpreters for the festival are nationally certified and excel in theatrical and performance interpreting. Organizers encourage visitors to stop by and ask questions at the ASL Interpreter’s booth or as Interpreters are walking to venues. One of the goals of the festival is to serve as access for the deaf, and educational awareness for the hearing in the hope of encouraging a cultural bridge between both cultures.

Additionally, at the Access Tent attendees could pick up large print and braille programs, maps, other amenities. Finally, there was plenty of accessible parking for accessibility vehicles, vans and cars. The Festival has kept abreast with technology and has put many organizations and businesses, even other nonprofits to shame as they continue to be behind the eight-ball where accessibility issues are concerned, even with thought patterns and word power. For example the parking, the port-a-johns, the areas in front of the stage are stated as accessible, not “handicapped.”

Every effort is made for attendees to have fun and learn with ease. In addition to music and dance, there was a juried craft show, green living expo, working riverfront, environmental education sites, and a circle of song featuring audience participation. The culturally diverse are celebrated and you will find a wonderful variety of delicious foods, as well as vegan and vegetarian offerings, Thai, Indian, Greek, Chinese and Middle Eastern food, homemade baked goods and ice cream. And for those stalwarts who have to have a slice, pizza, and for the kids, hot dogs.

What I enjoy about the Clearwater Festival in addition to all of the above is what it represents to me, the principles it not just espouses, but practices. For example the festival takes very seriously all of the behind-the-scenes elements most people don’t even consider. There are seven sustainable bio-diesel-powered performance stages. There is recycling of food waste. The volunteer meal preparation and sponsor selection are carried out according to methods of sustainability and social responsibility. Carpooling, bicycling and public transportation are encouraged. And the accessibility is one of the most inclusive for this type of outdoor festival.

The Clearwater Festival is produced by The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit, member-supported, environmental organization. The Festival is put together with the enormous effort of caring volunteers and individuals dedicated to principles which we should embrace and practice. Attending the Festival one cannot help but walk away invigorated by the sense of community and human connectedness affirming the vital cause of safeguarding the environment for posterity and sustaining it and ourselves during the process of giving back.

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