Olivia Doyle: Founder of Riverwest FemFest


The first FemFest event took place in 2015. Image from the FemFest facebook page. 

Riverwest FemFest is an annual festival and fundraiser held in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, WI. It brings together hundreds of creatives and thousands of supporters who share the ideals for basic human rights for all. Milwaukee has an incredibly strong and supportive community when it comes to the arts, and serval activists within the midst of performers and artists participating in the events. I remember going to the first FemFest, held at a tiny location, my junior year of college. At the time, I didn't know Olivia Doyle personally, the founder of the event, but I appreciated and marveled at the massive turn out it had over the weekend. Since then, FemFest has grown into a 5 day long, neighborhood encompassing, celebration of femininity, POC, and LBGTQ cultures, and a community in its own right. Something Olivia doesn't know is how she inspired me by starting FemFest, and how it gave me hope for starting my own platform, that is now Pink Things, two years later. I've gotten to know Olivia, and Pink Things will even be participating in the Maker's Fair. So I interviewed this inspiring woman, about what we can expect and how much hard work has gone into Riverwest FemFest 2017

Olivia Doyle at the FemFest Gallery Exhibition at Groovy Dog Gallery. Image from Olivia's Instagram. 

Sarah Sickles for Pink Things: Hi Olivia! The third year of Riverwest FemFest starts today! Do you mind talking a little bit about how FemFest got started? What inspired the festival?

Olivia Doyle: Hi Sarah! Yes, FemFest starts today! I can’t believe it - I feel like I’ve been talking and talking about this for months and now it’s happening! I started FemFest as a way of celebrating and thanking the really empowering women around me. I was in a really low place emotionally at the time, and surrounding myself with and getting to know some of the women in Riverwest was a really inspiring and life changing thing for me. Because of them, I wanted to work harder for myself and for others around me. I wanted more for myself because they reminded me that I deserve it. The first year of FemFest took place at the Cocoon Room, a DIY all-ages space on Locust Street. We had about 16 femme-fronted bands spread out throughout a two-day period. This year we’ve expanded to 5 days and over 70 performers, a film showcase, a formal gallery, makers fair, and workshop series.

2017 FemFest poster by Melissa Johnson. Image courtesy of the Riverwest FemFest Facebook page.

PT: Can you tell me more about what FemFest does? It’s goals and fundraising efforts?

OD: While FemFest is a festival, it’s more importantly a fundraiser. Last year we raised over $11,000 for DRAM - Date Rape Awareness Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Women’s Center (split 30/70). This year, we’ve changed beneficiaries to The Milwaukee Coalition for Justice, Pathfinders Milwaukee and The Milwaukee Women’s Center (split 50/25/25) and we hope to surpass our donation amount from last year. We chose to donate our proceeds to these three organization because together they serve a wide range of people in need in Milwaukee.

Performances took place at multiple venues last year, including Company Brewing. Image from Olivia's Instagram. 

PT: FemFest has grown from a singular venue art event into a weekend-long arts festival across the RiverWest neighborhood in Milwaukee. Can you talk about this growth and the community support surrounding FemFest?

OD: The rate that FemFest is growing is really amazing and overwhelming. We’ve grown from a two day event to a five day event in just three years. We’ve gone from 16 bands to 70 bands/performers. We’ve added a wider variety of art, music and performance. The support from the Riverwest community is really what keeps this festival going. All of the venues that we use donate their space to us. Company Brewing brews a beer in collaboration with us. We’ve felt a lot of support - not just from our neighbors and friends in Riverwest, but from local businesses as well, which is essential to keeping this festival running. Most of our musicians, spoken word artists, visual artists, workshop leaders, other performers and organizers are local, and a few of them have performed at every FemFest so far. The sense of community that happens at this festival is truly a beautiful thing and it makes FemFest what it is.

Performances took place at multiple venues last year, including Company Brewing. Image from @jen__waters Instagram. 

PT: What importance does FemFest hold for you as a woman living in Milwaukee?)

OD: Everyone who comes to FemFest is incredibly supportive of each other, and this creates a very empowering environment to be in. Being an organizer of FemFest, it’s really incredible to see all of these artists that I look up to really get the spotlight and attention that they deserve. FemFest is an incredible way to celebrate each other and I think that the energy and support that stems from FemFest carries on throughout the year.

FemFest organizers held a Halloween fundraiser in 2016. Image from www.jpaetzphotography.com. 

PT: What are some of the new features of this year’s FemFest?

OD: We have so many new features this year!!!! We are doing a full workshop series, which tackles a really wide variety of topics, ranging from “How To Be An Accomplice To Your Trans Peers” to “Anti-Blackness and Pro-White Womanhood in Anti-Violence Movements and Scenes” to “Mental Digest and Rest Yoga”. Along with our new workshop series, we are also having a FemFest Film Showcase, FemFest Gallery Exhibition and we are opening the fest (tonight!) with our first ever “Variety Night”, which will include comedy, burlesque, performance art and a drag show. We are so excited to expand the range of artists that we include in the fest this year.

We are also doing a Solidarity March with the Million Women’s March happening in Washington DC. Our march will meet at the Riverwest Public House at 10am on Saturday, January 21st. It will leave from there at 11am and end at Company Brewing around noon - which also is the start time to our first-ever Riverwest FemFest Film Showcase! 

FemFest poster by Nellie Vance. Image from the Riverwest FemFest facebook page. 

PT: This is an event put on by femmes in the Milwaukee community for the benefit of femmes in the Milwaukee community. Can you talk about the intersectionality of the event and how FemFest pushes boundaries with feminism within and outside of Milwaukee?

OD: We really aim to make FemFest as inclusive as possible to everyone. Historically, feminism has long been fronted by straight, white women and being intersectional and inclusive in our form of feminism that we present as a festival is incredibly important to us. We have a really large and diverse artist base this year, and we really want to give everyone the platform to show their work/perform/share their experiences, but we acknowledge and are aware of the need to push POC, LBGTQ+, and the trans community to the front. We are doing this through our fest, especially through our workshop series, and through our choice of beneficiaries this year. Our main beneficiary for 2017 is the Milwaukee Coalition for Justice, which is run by Nate Hamilton. They organize the Black Lives Matter events in Milwaukee, as well as Dontre Day at Red Arrow Park. Our other beneficiaries are Pathfinders Milwaukee and The Milwaukee Women’s Center.  

I think the most important thing to remember when talking about inclusivity and intersectional feminism, is that there is always room to grow, always room to learn, and we always need to take time to listen, acknowledge and emphasize with other people’s experiences that are different from our own. I think FemFest gives participants both the opportunity to share their experiences and listen to those of others.    

Image from the Riverwest FemFest facebook page. 

PT: Has there been any negative pushback for the event? How do you handle that?

OD: We did have some push back this year regarding the name we chose for our FemFest beer. We originally named it “Pussy Bites Back” as a reference to our president-elect and his clear hate and xenophobia for most marginalized groups of people in this country. However, we failed to consider the effects of our word choice here, and because of this, it was seen as exclusionary to the trans community and people who are non-binary. This was obviously never our intention. We apologized, changed the name (Femme-pire Strikes Back), added a permanent beneficiary that helps the trans and queer community here in Milwaukee and learned from our mistakes. All we can really do when we mess up as allies is apologize, listen to your peers and educate ourselves, and that’s what we did.

New Boyz Club performing at the 2016 FemFest. Image from Olivia's Instagram. 

PT: What has been the greatest reward out of this experience? The greatest challenge?

OD: The most rewarding part about organizing FemFest is seeing and feeling all of the support from everyone who participates and everyone who attends. I never thought this fest would grow into what it is this year, so feeling the support from my community for an idea that I feel really passionate about is incredibly rewarding for me, personally. The most challenging thing is balancing organizing this fest with my personal life as well as being a full-time student. The FemFest organizing team is made up of really powerful women who all have a lot of other obligations (my longest running co-organizer is pregnant with her first baby this year!!), so making sure that we devote enough time and energy into organizing is sometimes difficult, but so worth it. We have big plans for the future, although it’s going to have to be a surprise ;)

Image from @GarrickJannene's Instagram. 

For more about 2017 FemFest and further info, visit our events page or the official Riverwest FemFest website

This interview was conducted via email has been condensed and edited