Making the Harmony Festival Tick

This past weekend, from June 11 — 13, the 32nd annual Harmony Festival in Sonoma, Calif., was crawling with 35,000 people looking for everything ranging from inspirational speakers, sustainable vendors, an eclectic array of music and of course, harmony. I like to refer to it as "a party with a purpose," says CEO Howard Sapper. This year’s welcome letter describes the Harmony Festival as “part Green Festival, part Burning Man, part X-Games, part Cirque du Soleil—” quite the production.


One thing kept running through my mind while I was there: What exactly does it take to run this event? I gained some insight by meeting up with some of the women who make the Harmony Festival the colorful success it is.

A key, and often overlooked, component to running a successful festival is to make sure the trash generated by thousands of people gets dealt with efficiently and sustainably. Judging by the highly organized bins and practically no trash on the ground, whoever was in charge of the trash here knows what they’re doing. I trailed some of the volunteers I saw collecting compost past the food vendors, past the eco skate ramp, hung a left at the campgrounds and followed them into a big red barn on the fringe of the fairgrounds. That’s where I found Green Mary.

I noticed Mary by the pin on her shirt that read “I talk trash” and thought to myself this must be who I'm looking for. I introduced myself and Mary pulled up an old swivel chair with no back and said brightly “I found this in a dumpster!” as she took a seat and offered me a glass of ice water.


 IMG_7324 Mary explained that she first connected with the Harmony Festival 13 years ago, when she was working for their HR department. It was around that time that Julia Butterfly Hill (the woman who infamously lived in a Northern California redwood tree from ’97 — ’99) graced the stage at one of the festivals and advised people that if they wanted to learn more about themselves they should look at their garbage: “I mean really look at it,” Mary said squinting at the word really as she repeated the words that changed the path of her career and direction of her life. So Mary did just that. She went home and took a good long look at her trash. What came of that experience was the revelation of Green Mary, her alias and the name of her event waste processing and diversion business.

She does about 200 events per year, including the Sierra Nevada Music Festival and Love Fest in San Francisco. She explained that the demand for her type of work is so high that she’s never hired a marketing person, because frankly, she says, she doesn't need one: “All my advertising is word of mouth.” And thanks to her 100 paid employees and carousel of dedicated volunteers, some of whom work until 5 a.m., the Harmony Festival is able to divert over 90 percent of its trash.

IMG_7325 A festival also can’t be a success without a charismatic MC to get the crowd excited. So the next person I went on a quest to meet was one of the annual MCs — a woman who goes by the name Betty Biodiesel. I figured she might be tough to find, especially since I had no idea what she looked like or where I could find her, just the intriguing name to follow and a hunch that most people here would know who she was.

I went to the stage she had been hosting at an hour earlier and asked a security guard who looked like he could have been part of the Hell’s Angels if he knew of Betty Biodiesel. His face lit up and he grinned as he said “Of course! She was just around here, but I’m not sure where she went.” I asked if he remembered what she was wearing and he chuckled at my ignorance. “Just look for the woman with a sunflower around her head and a bright green leotard.” I decided to hang around there for her and few minutes later a personified sunflower went zipping by on a biofuel-powered scooter. That must be Betty Biodiesel, I thought.

The first thing I asked her about was where the name came from: “Well, back in 2002 I looked around and noticed that I was a girl in a man’s business, the fuel business.” Rather than trying to downplay her femininity to get ahead, she embraced it, “and Betty Biodiesel was born.” Betty is the co-founder of the Sonoma County Biodiesel Cooperative and has worked as a biofuel consultant. Since the birth of Betty Biodiesel she’s taught kids about biofuel — particularly the difference between sustainable and unsustainable biofuels. She helps run, an eco educational TV series, and regularly MCs events like Harmony Festival (her eighth year now). I thanked her for her time, then she sped away on her scooter, zipping through a group of burlesque-dressed women on six-foot high stilts.


The final woman on my list was Ms. Harmony Festival herself: Debra Giusti. After searching the entire fairgrounds (she was the hardest to find, since she wasn’t enthusiastically sorting trash or dressed as a sunflower), I found her in the Eco Pavilion next to a cob building exhibit, casually chatting with some fellow festival-goers.

Debra founded the festival 32 years ago, she says, “from my passion, fire and a mission.” She elaborated that back in 1977, in Sonoma (and beyond) there was a large group of people who wanted to transition to living more harmoniously with the earth, others and themselves. And thus became the very first Harmony Festival, then just about 500 people.


Since then, the festival has remained a place where community members gather to exchange ideas, find support, express themselves and just enjoy being together. “The Harmony Festival has evolved as the resources and people and information have changed, but it always stays on the cutting edge of what the next stage is for the festival’s core values — health, music, ecology and spirituality.” And it will continue to evolve as it inspires more ideas in people like Green Mary, Betty Biodiesel and the rest of the Harmony Festival community.

Learn more about Jenna.

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