How to engage a GenZ in an environmental culture festival

by Faith Foo

This narrative is a Hermit Crab piece crafted to narrate the GenZ journey of a young man through the Klang River Festival 2023. It borrows the format of a step-by-step “how-to” guide to describe his evolving process of understanding the ecological narrative and discovering his purpose within that realm, alongside his peers. This piece can also be viewed as a Bildungsroman, as it takes the form of a slice of life memoir that encapsulates his transitory
phase between states and the ensuing momentum of personal growth.

Catch him in a transitionary period
It was in mid-May when the post-academic blues started to settle in. The prospect of an uncertain future hits hard for the recent graduate, especially following an interruption from the comfort of structured learning. It felt as if the momentum I’d gained in that academic environment had suddenly ground to a halt. I found myself at home, caught in
inertia—grateful for the much-needed rest, yet hesitant to venture into new opportunities and face potential risks.

Overwhelmed by this full-stop to the chapter of my education, I did the easiest thing one would do; latch onto the next thing that comes drifting by.

Sow the seeds early on
My father first told me all about the Klang River Festival during a drizzly midnight mamak session at an obscure junction somewhere in Cheras. That happened back in the early stages of 2022, and I don’t recall details from that conversation. As for last year’s festival itself, I remember trudging down a dusty trek and fending off mosquitoes at a pyrotechnics and projection mapping show.

The remaining days are a bit of a blur, but I attribute this to the old Chinese saying by the philosopher Xunzi, who notes; ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I will learn.’ It was essentially in this spirit that I shook off my despondency and regained a sense of purpose. Eager to learn, I began with what Xunzi had hinted at; I got involved. With the idea that I was joining some kind of water-based weekend celebration with performances, I set about preparing for this year’s Klang River Festival. After a briefing from the festival producer Wyn Hee, however, it became clear that the planning had shifted several gears beyond what I had envisioned.

Show him the action
Of course, the festival was never solely focused on water-related activities, but building on its inaugural success in 2022, this second edition of KRF has expanded to almost 50 separate events. The team curated a diverse array of programs so as to encourage substantial interaction between citizens and the river. So over the month of September, people poured into the programs they fancied, from youth gatherings, intense discussions and forums with water
experts, to camping, plogging, and other hands-on experiences.

With this rescaling, the festival crew embarked on the monumental task of managing an event that had doubled in size, encompassing more content, participants, and locations. Stepping into the role of the festival’s content writer, I was struck by the sheer faith upon which this project was built. As I became more acquainted with the festival’s history and operations, it became clear to me that its allure lies in its role as a platform—a space that facilitates active engagement with the river for a diverse range of groups, including government entities and stakeholders.

Our team at Kongsi embarked on the thrilling challenge of bringing together participants, with experts in various fields scattered across Kuala Lumpur – architects, artists, directors, educators, scholars, performers, you name it. Locating them was just the beginning; the team would also need to artfully curate the entire experience, a task easier said than done. Ultimately, this undertaking resulted in the generation of 200 jobs throughout the festival. This means that
we had a minimum of 200 dedicated individuals actively engaging, spurring the festival’s outreach to an estimated minimum of 20,000 citizens in person.

Give him more active roles
27th of July. I received word about an opportunity to perform at the festival. The following days were a whirlwind of convincing a co-performer to join and hastily putting together a proposal.

The chance to grace the stage at KongsiKL should have filled one with great anticipation, ushering in a fresh wave of performance artistry. However, as my co-writer Pixie and I delved into researching the Klang River, immersing ourselves in its grim realities, guilt coursed through my veins. I became acutely aware of the avoidable waste I had inadvertently contributed to.

Right on its heels came a wave of feeling insignificant, that no one is enough to change the world with their actions. At that point in time, even practical solutions seemed futile.

Then almost in spite, a mischievous idea came bubbling up: “let’s concoct an outrageously didactic performance!” I suggested. “Maybe, just maybe, it’ll guilt-trip us all into some wildly productive action!”

“Yeah, of course that’s the perfect idea”, Pixie said after a moment of silence. “People do love being preached to. I bet that–”. I cut her short.

Our spoken word piece eventually involved four wordsmiths and musicians. Together, we crafted a narrative consisting of three movements that resonated throughout the venue.

Let him share his story
During the second week of the festival, I found myself exploring the talks and screenings at Dasein Academy. It was there that I stumbled upon a documentary thinking workshop conducted by Mahen Bala.

His workshop infused me with a fresh wave of inspiration, encouraging me to bring my ideas to life. The supportive environment surrounding me catalysed the coalescence of my idea and shaped it into an exhibition.

Mahen suggested that we showcase the exhibition alongside the documentary screenings as part of the festival’s closing ceremony, and our momentum grew rapidly. The pieces fell into place, and it felt inevitable that our exhibition would become a reality.

Ask him to reflect as part of the team.
Mulling over the past few weeks of the festival, I was suddenly struck with the presence of numerous rivers flowing throughout Malaysia.

I assumed that festivals would be organised in their honour, but I had neither heard nor seen any indication of such events taking place.

A quick search revealed that in recent years, both the Rajang River and Kampar River (in 2019) had their dedicated festivals, combining conservation efforts with rich heritage and cultural experiences. Yet, like fleeting flares, the interest and concern sparked by these events seemed to diminish after the initial excitement.

It was through this realisation that I understood the effectiveness of a festival cannot solely be measured by its level of engagement; it is something that should reflect on transformative action.

Some important questions remain unanswered. Though we each have our concerns for the Klang river, and each does our part, how do we turn that potential into stories people will keep in their hearts? How do we make a wide and lasting impact?

Is it through a combination of programs that facilitate extensive interaction between people and the river? Or do we work with stakeholders and government bodies such as SMG and Selangor Maritime so people can engage in dialogues and stay informed about the river’s status?

My father told me once that the intention of the festival is to inspire participation through conversations. I think that people generally comprehend the river’s importance and are mostly aware of its condition, but their actions often remain within their comfort zones. Without any triggers or incentives, they might not take any action.

The festival serves as a platform for people to actively engage and translate their words into actions. While KongsiKL has embraced this concept to enhance and safeguard our river, I hope that this grassroots engagement touches your heart with the passion and sincerity of self-initiated efforts.

By this time next year, maybe someone new will be willing to grow in the spirit of the Klang River festival.

To find out more about the Klang River Festival, check out their website and Instagram!

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