‘How do you start a festival?’ What I learnt from a year working pro bono with festival21

3 December 2015
Guest Blogger – Juliette Wittich

It’s always good to start at the beginning, but what if you’re an impatient, intelligent and unapologetic disrupter? Maybe you’ll start in the middle.

Festival21 had a name before it had a venue, funding, or program. That’s because it was born out of a single but powerful idea. That a healthier, more sustainable, future can start with a single conversation- and that someone should host a conversation about sustainable food that people actually want to get involved in.

How do I know? Well, I’ve spent the last year of my life shadowing many of Dr Alessandro Demaio’s movements – festival21 founder, WHO Medical Officer, global health campaigner, and my mentor.

Before you start, no I don’t like the word mentor. It seems like a piece of overblown 80’s business jargon. It’s not cool. It’s not edgy. It’s the kind of word that if I am honest, makes me a little bit nervous. Yet somehow, in my early twenties, it has become very important to me.

I began volunteering with Sandro a year ago, doing some Communications work for NCDFREE’s “The Face ” campaign. It was a good way to bridge the gap between my previous work in communications and my current studies in Public Health. There was no golden invitation, just an ad posted casually on my Master’s student page on Facebook asking if anyone could help with the project.

Which brings me to my first point. If you want to start a festival, get great volunteer experience, or just make the most of opportunities– you have to be a “yes” person.

“Can you write a social media strategy?’ “Yes.” “Would you be able to coordinate a lunch for 30 Mental Health Professionals and young leaders?” “Yes”. “Can you rewrite all the copy on this website?” “Yes.” “Can you make yourself available for an overseas conference?” “Heck yes.”

“Yes” can be scary, because it means taking responsibility. It means owning something. It means having confidence in your own abilities. Yes is deliberate and it doesn’t leave much room for agonizing. A lot of people don’t think young people are “yes” people. They categorize us as indecisive, even fickle. Surprise them.

Saying “Yes” to my first opportunity to volunteer with NCDFREE has meant that in a short space of time, I have been able to gain real experience in a multitude of areas I’m really passionate about.

By saying “Yes” when asked if there was a particular area of health I was most interested in, I went from volunteering as a Media Assistant to coordinating a Long Lunch for 30 established and emerging Mental Health professionals.

Consistently saying, “Yes” to extra responsibilities, has also led to me being asked to coordinate NCDFREE’s Australasian network in 2016. “Yes,” allowed me to walk the talk, but it isn’t the only word you need to know.

Saying “Yes” to helping to plan and establish an entirely new festival of ideas, surrounding food, community, and the future – has also taught me a lot about the times I need to say, “No”.

I have learnt that everyone is busy, particularly the people you admire. They can guide you, but they can’t carry you. So you have to be able to communicate, and sometimes, you have to be able to politely but firmly say “No”.

I have been studying full-time and working for most of this year. Sometimes this means I have to say “No” to extra tasks if I know I won’t have time to do them justice.

Honesty in this situation is crucial. I am a young person; I have to be honest about my capabilities. If I really have to work because rent is due and I can’t make it to a planning meeting, sometimes that is okay.

If I think I will make more interesting connections and be exposed to more activities aligned with where I want my career to be heading at the meeting, I will reshuffle. It’s a careful balance.

When planning a festival with 38 extremely bright young professionals from a variety of backgrounds, balance is also important. Sometimes the enthusiasm and talent explodes in all directions and we need to carefully consider what is an essential activity and what might be a “future yes”, or even a “no.”

Having someone so experienced in building great teams like Sandro has been incredibly helpful in this process. Of course, I have to be proactive in asking for his advice – which comes back to the communication thing. Ask ask ask!

Whether you want guidance on what to do professionally, how to make an idea happen, or a brilliant speaker to explain humanity’s irrepressible obsession with what’s on our plate – you have got to be bold enough to ask.

It’s a beautiful thing that our festival is almost entirely run by donated time, talent and communication. This is down to the amazing example Sandro has set for how to ask and spread passion by being humble and energetic.

Watching him work and actively seeking his counsel, has taught me a lot about capturing people’s passions to create change. I will carry these experiences for the rest of my career and I feel lucky to have had them.

What I would stress is that this experience has not been some fluke of talent or connections. It has been a simple case of being bold enough to ask someone I admire to teach me a little of what they do, and then being brave enough to say yes to the chances they give me to test what I’ve learnt.

I hope that in three short weeks, when festival21 hits the MCEC stage, those of us who have learnt so much in the past year can also pay-it-forward. We want to bring new ideas and inspiration to the way Melbourne thinks about the role of food in building a healthier and more sustainable future. Want to be a part of this too? Ask me. I’m a “Yes” person.


festival21 is a free and unprecedented, all-day celebration of community, food and future. Taking over The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Friday 11 December. It will serve and digest our biggest social challenges through something we love and celebrate – food. We are actively seeking volunteers. If you are interested, please follow the YOA link, or contact Communications Coordinator Juliette: Juliette@ncdfree.org.