The organizers and partners of Elements Lakewood Music & Arts Festival promote wholesome vibes and values and you could feel it in the air all Memorial Day weekend. At the verdant Lakewood Retreats in the Northeasternmost corner of Pennsylvania, there was so much to see and do, from the festival’s array of art installations to its innumerable stages. One aspect of the festival which was not so conspicuous was the strong infrastructure in place to keep attendees safe, supported and sanctified during their experience.
At the foundation of this infrastructure was Harmonia, an Asheville-based organization that provides sanctuary spaces, harm reduction, and so much more to the festival community. A harm reduction presence offers such peace of mind and added value for a music festival, albeit value that most attendees don’t see. It may be surprising, then, that only four dedicated harm reduction and sanctuary space organizations operate in the United States. Elements Lakewood was wise to invite one of them, Harmonia, back for the second year in a row.
Harmonia was founded in 2015 by a passionate perennial festival worker named Maegen Coral. The organization has grown in the hippy holler of Asheville, North Carolina, and has begun to broaden its impact up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Missouri. Harmonia can be many things; an attitude, an intention, how one carries oneself. Specifically, Harmonia is an on-site professional support team and task force that promotes health and safety at music festivals. Going beyond the role of the Good Samaritan, this team actively promotes self care as a preventative and harm-reducing technique.
Harmonia believes that widespread health and safety vastly improve the festival experience and allow attendees to truly open up and explore themselves and the world. By bringing back this group of volunteers for a second year, Elements demonstrated its commitment to this ethos as well. “It changes the energy, it changes the expectation,” Maegen says as we chat cross-legged in the grass next to a row of EZ-Ups outfitted so that each resembles a spiritually-aware living room. Ideas tumble from Maegen, the next one arriving before the last one is completely wrapped. With a radio strapped around her shoulder, her shock of bright dyed red hair belies the fact that she’s all business when it comes to safety and ops at festivals. While we spoke, she maintained a sporadic dialogue with other workers through the radio strapped to her shoulder. Now and then she executed some surely needed leg stretches.
“What we’re doing here is 'iso', which is isolation - individual pods for people who have augmented situations and who are highly distressed.” Here Harmonia volunteers provide one-on-one support to guide festival attendees experiencing amplified states, and help de-escalate their experiences as necessary. “We have a lot in common with the philosophy of the Zendo Project,” Meagen says, referencing the organization at the forefront of harm reduction at music festivals. The Zendo volunteer training, offered annually at Burning Man and available for free online, became the first building block for Harmonia’s volunteer trainings.
Harmonia was positioned adjacent to the Well Nest at the center of the festival grounds. Their three isolation tents, each walled in on three sides by rich tapestries, may have been the most comfortable and serene spaces to be found on the grounds. Next to them was a table, a practical music festival oasis. Upon the table next to an amethyst geode, a small picture of Albert Hoffman and fliers for Solasta Festival was bug spray, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, condoms, aloe vera, and body lotion all available to the public. Elements Lakewood is early in the festival season. Many folks, especially city folks of which Elements was chock full, were stretching their festival legs outdoors for the first time. As such, the availability of these provisions was truly appreciated by all. (Your correspondent visited Harmonia’s space more than once for sunscreen after spending time down on the lake, though fortunately a return visit for aloe vera wasn’t necessary).
The sun bore down Saturday at Elements as Meagen and two of Harmonia’s volunteers, Laura Eshelman and Greg Pool, continued to share their experiences in the shadow of their sanctuary space. Elements Lakewood had an infectiously groovy vibe from start to finish. But while talking to these good Asheville folks, I couldn’t help but feel an even greater confidence, a nascent feeling of empowerment that my newfound company was bringing out of me. “They create an environment of great peace and relaxation, not just physically, but more importantly - metaphysically and spiritually. The importance of this should never be lost on an event promoter,” according to the Tipper & Friends crew. They call Harmonia their “go-to” for harm reduction. At the Tipper & Friends 4321 event in Astral Valley last summer, Harmonia established their public sanctuary space. At Elements, just the isolation tents were present due to budgeting constraints. Maegen gets a note in her voice and a smirk flashes briefly across her face when she mentions the public space.
It was a relatively slow weekend in and around the Harmonia space at Lakewood. Ironically, that can ultimately be positive for this group. It hopefully means people are already implementing the practices that Harmonia promotes. What are those practices? Most are more simple than you’d think. “You’d be a surprised at how much your mood and energy levels and emotions change when you have a lack of water compared to when you’re drinking water. It’s a physiological, emotional shift. So drink water and offer it to others who may need it,” Maegen suggests. “You need nourishment; a lot of deficits come from lack of nutrition or lack of water. Check in with your friends, check in with your neighbors. Pay attention.”
Indeed, the crowd at Elements Lakewood was a self-aware and sophisticated bunch. Bad scenes were few and far between. Unhealthy behavior was a bit harder to find than usual. In addition to providing a sanctuary space and a cache of healthy resources and critical knowledge, Harmonia offered indirect benefits to the festival. The group serves as a backstop of sorts for festival security. After all, security staff ought to be handling issues of safety. They’re not trained in compassion work and harm reduction. The Harmonia crew, then, can handle “augmented situations” and allow security to allocate more of its own staff to the safety and ops work that is their purview. Elements Lakewood appeared slightly understaffed this year, so this added value was essential. According to Eshelman, also an Asheville resident, even when Harmonia's space isn't too busy it's value endures. "It's a symbol," she says.
During the offseason, Harmonia hosts shows - fundraisers - in their native Asheville and elsewhere in the Southeast US. It takes some resources, after all, to transport a box truck full of care items, festival decor and zen trappings across the Eastern US. Yet these events are more important than the windfall they provide. “One of the ways we seek to spread our message out in the community is to actually be an active part of the community. So the best way to really influence these festivals and this electronic culture in a positive way, encouraging people to be conscious and aware of what they’re putting into their bodies and how they’re caring for themselves, is to be an active part and create the container for that,” says Maegen. “So it’s not just us asking promoters ‘hey, will you support this mission?' We actually create and produce these parties where that’s at the forefront.” To that end, Harmonia is co-hosting its own festival called Solasta Festival in the hinterlands of Eastern Tennessee on August 17 & 18.
The need for capital, though, persists. A few weeks ago Harmonia established a Patreon account to help sustain their enterprise through crowd-funding. Patreon seeks monthly contributions and targets monthly funding goals while also inviting patrons to immerse themselves more deeply into the Harmonia crew and culture. There are tiers of support, and some are pretty hilarious. A $5 monthly donation earns you the title of Harm Reductor. “By choosing to be a Harm Reductor, you are choosing to actively maintain and support a healthy festival culture for everyone. Along with those karma points, you get access to our Patron-only Live Feed as well as our undying love and appreciation.” At $25, you’re a Pillar of Support. With $500 you’re a Healing It Homie. “You are literally *The Homie*. With your contribution, Harmonia can be more free and available to give our all in the service of others.” Different contributions earn physical and sonic swag like stickers, t-shirts, exclusive artist mixes and guest passes to Harmonia events. (If you’re in the Southeast US, Harmonia events are no slouch. Check out their past bookings).
Harmonia’s ethos and the core of its volunteer training are empowerment through education and self-care. These principles, not limited to Harmonia’s sanctuary space, were on display everywhere at Elements Lakewood and made for a wildly wholesome party. Music festivals, particularly those in far-flung retreats like Elements Lakewood, can be physically and emotionally challenging experiences. So empower yourself, says Harmonia, by taking care of yourself and making sure your crew does the same. Self-knowledge is the real vibe, and the vibe was thick at Elements Lakewood. “So many of our interactions are intuitive,” Maegen says. “You go off of facial expressions and body language, so what are we paying attention to? How can we put it in our minds to prioritize our well-being and the well-being of others. Because when we’re all feeling good, we’re going to have a better time. When we’re all looking out for each other we're going to feel safe.”