With stronger collaboration behind the scenes, Winter Carnival leaders look to build a more inclusive festival – Twin Cities | will it snow in florida

One of Lisa Jacobson’s pinky fingernails is painted icy Boreas blue. The other, fiery Vulcan red.

As the St. Paul Winter Carnival president spoke on a recent afternoon, she absent-mindedly clacked the two colors against each other. “Bringing us all together,” she said, is her personal motto as she approaches her second carnival as CEO of the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation.

Lisa Jacobson, St. Paul Winter Carnival CEO.
Lisa Jacobson, St. Paul Winter Carnival CEO, plays in the snow at Rice Park in St. Paul on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Hailing Boreas and Vulcanus Rex, of course, the warring kings of winter and summer in the carnival’s century-old legend — but more importantly, bringing together all the increasingly diverse communities of St. Paul to celebrate the city.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m here, is to help this organization figure out how to balance their rich traditions — this 137-year-old event — with our emerging heritage in St. Paul, and be intentional about that,” Jacobson said.

Driving an institution toward actual change requires a look under the hood, so to speak, at the structures that undergird the organization. Interviews with Jacobson and a half dozen current and former Carnival and character group leaders illuminate how a changing approach to the behind-the-scenes machinery of the Winter Carnival is a crucial step toward building a more inclusive and representative festival.

A welcome hands-on approach

Less than a month after Jacobson took on the carnival’s top leadership role in August 2021, the Royal Order of Klondike Kates — the active alumni network for previous years’ “mistresses of fun, frivolity and good fellowship” — was performing at the State Fair.

Like all the independent nonprofit groups for former characters, the Royal Order of Klondike Kates does not fall under the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation’s formal purview, but Jacobson figured she’d stop by anyway to introduce herself.

The Kates were pleasantly surprised to see a carnival CEO make time for them in this way.

“That had never happened before,” said Paula Berends, who was “sashed” as a Kate in 2005. “Not in my memory, anyway.”

Not long afterward, the Order of the Royal Guard, another independent alumni network for guard characters in the Winter Carnival legend, met for a regularly scheduled meeting. Once again, Jacobson was there.

Her notably more hands-on leadership style is welcome, said representatives from the Vulcans, the reigning Royal Family, and the Klondike Kates. By caring to learn about the nitty-gritty elements of each character organization, Jacobson appears to be earning a higher level of respect and buy-in from members than her recent predecessors have.

This helps the carnival not only to better serve its character groups, leaders said, but also to more successfully implement necessary changes and share new ideas from the top.

One such development is an intentional shift toward greater community outreach.

With the carnival’s new Rondo Night event on Feb. 2, for example, Jacobson is partnering with advocates and artists who have deep ties to the city’s historically Black neighborhood. In future years, Jacobson hopes to devote each weeknight of the Winter Carnival to spotlighting the different communities within St. Paul.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Winter Carnival representatives met with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter to discuss inclusivity efforts; those discussions stalled over the past few years. Jacobson said a recent meeting with the mayor and the new King Boreas, whose identity will be publicly revealed next week, was productive.

The outgoing Royal Family has been committed to this goal as well, said Christine Arme, who has served this year in the high-ranking logistical character role of Prime Minister. The family made appearances Hmong International Freedom Festival, District 196’s American Indian Education program graduation, and other cultural events. And the outgoing King Boreas, Billy Given, chose the Rondo Center for Diverse Expression as his official charity during his reign.

“I think that you have to do more than say everyone is welcome,” said Jacobson, who also recently wrapped up a term as mayor of Brooklyn Park. “You really have to be more intentional about who you partner with, who you have in the spotlight, how you shine the light throughout the 10 days — and on what things.”

Dismantling structural barriers in the Winter Carnival

Jacobson said she wants people to look at photos of Winter Carnival events and see themselves represented, wherever in the city or the world they grew up. Still, deeper structural barriers remain.

For one, stereotypes that once surrounded Carnival character groups can prove tough to dispel. Long gone are the days of unsupervised and aggressive Vulcans, Jacobson reiterated in several conversations. Some women who may be interested in becoming Klondike Kate have expressed to past years’ Kates that they fear professional ramifications from those who aren’t familiar with her legend and costume.

Plus, taking on a character role can be pricey and time-intensive. Members of each year’s Royal Family make over 300 formal appearances around the state and country, which is no small commitment for folks with jobs and families, said Sheryl Williams, who served as Klondike Kate in 2019.

The actual out-of-pocket costs add up, too. Characters are responsible for securing sponsorships to defray a portion, said Arme, the outgoing prime minister, but sponsors are not obligated to donate a standardized amount of money. So the expense varies: For new Krewe members, for example, the Vulcans estimate an up-front investment of about $1,500 to purchase costumes and the fire king’s ring, plus up to a few thousand more in travel costs.

But when one character group makes strides or prioritizes a certain value, greater collaboration within the Carnival’s behind-the-scenes organizational structure means there’s more potential for widespread progress among all characters.

On the expense front, the Royal Order of Klondike Kates have begun dedicating a portion of the organization’s income to the goal of covering all the incoming Kate’s expenses for the 10 days of Winter Carnival. She still has expenses for the rest of the year, but it’s a helpful boost that can make the role more accessible and is an idea Jacobson could conceivably use her position to help implement in other alumni character groups.

Vulcanus Rex LXXXIV Fred Edstrom, left, has his cape adjusted by Duke of Klinker Jim Bebeau.
Vulcanus Rex LXXXV Fred Edstrom, left, has his cape adjusted by Duke of Klinker Jim Bebeau, before a photo shoot with the 2022 Vulcan Krewe in St. Paul on Wednesday, Feb.2, 2022. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Over the past decades, the Vulcans have worked to reconnect with their founding legend of spreading warmth to the people through altruism and community service, said Steve Robertson, who served as Vulcanus Rex LXXV about 10 years ago and subsequently as president of the Imperial Order Fire & Brimstone — the Vulcans’ own charitable alumni group — and a St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation board member.

Internal education is central. The incoming Vulcanus Rex each year, for example, is presented with three separate training manuals. Part of Krewe members’ onboarding takes place at Oakland Cemetery at the gravesite of Delos Monfort, the creator of the fanciful carnival legend who himself served as the first fire king.

“We no longer represent ourselves; we represent a 137-year tradition,” Robertson said. “These challenges provided opportunities for us to deepen our understanding of who we are and what the tradition of the Vulcan name itself is all about.”

For Robertson — who is ordained as a Lutheran minister, doesn’t drink, and never missed a Winter Carnival parade growing up in the early 1960s — everything is the carnival legend, and the carnival legend is almost theological. Food drives, fundraising and community visits are all ways of spreading the fire king’s warmth and reminding one another that better days are ahead. Renewed life is unstoppable.

In the lead-up to the Winter Carnival, all carnival characters receive extensive protocol manuals and attend a series of training workshops called Legend Character Development.

There, they play out different scenarios: Maybe the Royal Family is making an appearance at a school or a nursing home. Maybe the King and Queen are asked to introduce a benefit gala. Maybe Klondike Kate is up in Canada or down in Florida at other civic festivals, representing St. Paul.

Queen of the Snows, Effie Barnes and Boreas LXXXIV, Billy Given during the 2022 St. Paul Winter Carnival Royal Coronation at the Saint Paul RiverCentre on Friday, January 28, 2022.
Queen of the Snows, Effie Barnes and Boreas LXXXIV, Billy Given during the 2022 St. Paul Winter Carnival Royal Coronation at the St. Paul RiverCentre on Friday, January 28, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Each person needs to know their role in the legend backward and forward — and they must learn the dozens of pages’ worth of protocol and behavioral guidelines their characters are bound to abide by. The festival foundation’s rules, and the punishments for breaking them, only apply to the reigning legend characters during their year of service.

However, each of the independent alumni groups has its own protocol guides. Strictly speaking, the carnival and its network of character groups are separate entities. But functionally, they’re locked together almost gravitationally, like a planet and its moons. This is how the support Jacobson is earning with her more hands-on leadership style comes into play.

“It just makes us feel that we are supported by the ‘mothership,’” said Williams, the 2019 Kate, “and we do our best to support the mothership back.”

Then — as Klondike Kates tend to do — Williams; Berends, the 2005 Kate; and Kristen Oster, the 2017 Kate, spontaneously broke into song during the group conversation.

“It’s Winter Carnival — come on, get happy!” the trio sang in harmony. “The Kates are here to show you how!”

With character groups invested in her orbit, Jacobson can work closely with them to make sure every aspect of the carnival is consistent in its move in a more inclusive direction.

“I think people are waiting to see us innovate and pivot a bit as an organization, and that’s going to happen over time, with intentionality,” Jacobson said. “Any time you have an organization that’s as old as ours, you need great partners in the community to help you do that. You can’t do that by yourself.”

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