Be a Part of History: Volunteer!

Posted by on Dec 14, 2010

Milwaukee may be known as the City of Festivals, but they don’t just happen by themselves; many dedicated residents and volunteers preserve our culture and promote the heritage of the city annually. The Pfister Hotel hosted the United Ethnic Festivals board holiday party and the volunteer organizers of each of our summer festivals gathered to celebrate the season.

Early in the evening, I met the vice president of German Fest and his wife and while we talked, the celebration of heritage became more important than simply celebrating. The couple (Mr. and Mrs. Rudi Wolf) started to express their concern over how these traditions would carry on.

As the couple remembered concerts and shows they’d seen at the Pfister in the past and compared those stylings to today’s music and the bands they recruit for German Fest, they talked as much about the music as our interest in it…who will continue to appreciate such specific genres? Mrs. Wolf noted, “We hope the young people will come, but…” she ended with a shrug of her shoulders.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these concerns from long-standing local organizations. Though the Pfister carries with it a rich history, passed on through tenured staff members, other groups and volunteer organizations in the area carry a similar historic burden. Yet, with volunteerism and resources both on the decline, some of the traditions that have supported Milwaukee’s unique “Little Big Town” feel could be at risk.

Wolf talked of the Austrian club her family is a part of and the routines she established for her children—gently keeping them tied to the group through events and duties, hoping they’ll carry on a dedication to these organizations. Though she was concerned for who will contribute these all-important cultural histories to our city when the current volunteers have moved on, I am curious if she realizes just what a success she has already been. She told of her youngest daughter, the one who learned to yodel at a young age (through the association with the club, of course) and continues to do so. Or, if the tales of her four grandsons, who each participate in German Fest and the Austrian club impacted her as much as they did me—all of these young men are clearly an invested part of the heritage and value their role in it.

It made me wonder if it’s just natural to worry about how you pass on traditions to later generations, how you give up power and control in hope of keeping histories alive. And where is the line between ensuring that we keep even the smallest of organizations pulsing through our city—known for its variety of festivals and cultures—and pushing too hard to sustain the traditions of the old at the expense of the potential of the new?  German Fest’s website, clearly a vestige of the new, asks visitors to “BE A VOLUNTEER, help keep German traditions alive and introduce a whole new generation to the German culture of today and traditions of yester year.” Perhaps this technological mingling of spaces young leaders inhabit and ideas and traditions historic families seek to preserve is one step in bridging the gap.

Some of my questions were answered when I returned to look in on the gathering later that night and saw the incredible intergenerational mix that had assembled. Young professionals mingled among seasoned veterans of the city and it was clear that leadership and trust was being passed along, and more importantly, it was clear that worries about “the next generation” having the same passions for tradition may be unfounded as so many gathered on a Monday night to keep the past very much in the present.

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