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St. Paul Winter Carnival organizers intentional about inclusion

Winter Carnival goers will notice diversity in the entertainment, bands, DJs, vendors and more.

Winter Carnival attendees watching an ice carver.
Winter Carnival attendees watching an ice carver.
Courtesy of Nemer Fieger

We’re only a few weeks away from the anticipated St. Paul Winter Carnival. Organizers of the country’s oldest and largest winter festival in the country are gearing up for “The Coolest Celebration on Earth.”

“We really try to have a rich offering of events. Many of them are free,” said Lisa Jacobson, president and CEO of the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation.

She said is looking forward to bringing back Winter Carnival activities and introducing new fun events where everyone feels welcome.

“You have to do more than say that everyone is welcome to come. You have to be very intentional about who you partner with, who you have on stage, who you shine a light on throughout the ten days of this event,” said the Winter Carnival president.

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Jacobson is the former mayor of Brooklyn Park, the second most diverse suburb in the state, and says the public service role paved the way for what she’s doing now.

“I’ve spent decades bringing all people together and working hard to do that,” said Jacobson. “That is one of the reasons I am here is to figure out how to include our emerging heritage in the St. Paul Winter Carnival and be intentional about that. So, when you look at pictures, or you see an event, you say, as a person of color, ‘I want to go there. I belong there.’”

Jacobson said the foundation wanted a BIPOC artist to design the carnival buttons this year.

Geno Okok
Geno Okok
Thirty-one-year-old Geno Okok, a Brooklyn Park resident, is the first person of color to design the buttons in the history of the carnival.

“It felt pretty cool being the first person of color to design the buttons,” said Okok. “I was honored to be the first person of color to do that.”

You can find many of Okok’s murals on buildings throughout the Twin Cities. He helped lead the Frogtown mural project and others in St. Paul.

The muralist said he included the history of the St. Paul Winter Carnival and Minnesota in the project.

“One of the designs is from an actual photo from the carnival. So, I just merged a few pictures from the actual carnival into the button,” said the artist.

The artist also made a point to include diversity when crafting the buttons.

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“One of the buttons has two parents. One is Black, the other white, with an interracial kid. So, (biracial) people also have their voice as well,” said Okok. “I’ve heard many (biracial) people talk about not knowing where they belong when growing up. So, that was something I wanted to highlight.”

2023 St. Paul Winter Carnival buttons
Geno Okok
2023 St. Paul Winter Carnival buttons
“We run on tight deadlines, and I trusted him to get it done, and it would be amazing, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park,” remarked Jacobson.

Winter Carnival goers will notice diversity in the entertainment, bands, DJs, vendors and more. On Feb. 2, the Winter Carnival will feature Rondo Night, which pays homage to the St. Paul neighborhood that was the center of Black culture for much of the 20th Century.

“We’re going to highlight entertainers, artists, local vendors, and the restaurant, A Taste of Rondo,” said Jacobson. “I’m hoping people will come and learn about people in their community. Maybe they don’t know the story of Rondo.”

Winter Carnival officials hope everyone comes out and celebrates Minnesota’s rich and diverse culture.

The first place vote getter in the 2020 snow sculpture competition.
Courtesy of Nemer Fieger
The first place vote getter in the 2020 snow sculpture competition.
“This is who we are as a community. It’s how we should be living our lives, by coming together with our neighbors and learning about one another,” said Jacobson.

The St. Paul Winter Carnival will be held at different venues: Rice Park, Landmark Plaza Park, Landmark Center, and the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The event runs from Jan. 26 to Feb. 5.

It’s the 137th anniversary of the carnival.