Building a Positive and Comfortable Community at Oregon Country Fair

Building a Positive and Comfortable Community at Oregon Country Fair

Nestled in the trees, teeming with positive energy, and showcasing stunning local crafts, Oregon Country Fair is an amazing experience. Held annually since 1969 in Veneta, 15 miles east of Eugene, this fun and funky event is an Oregon tradition.

I finally took part in this tradition in summer 2017, spending a long weekend camping near the fair with friends and my boyfriend. OCF far exceeded my expectations, and I highly recommend attending. The best part, to me, was the atmosphere.

Welcoming and Positive

Oregon Country Fair Stilt Walkers
Stilt walkers are a common sight at Oregon Country Fair. © Jenni Denekas

The atmosphere at Oregon Country Fair was consistently welcoming. From the moment my carpool pulled into our camp, we were told, “Welcome home!” When I was introduced to friends of my friends, I was enveloped in hugs. Passers-by greeted each other with, “Happy Fair!”

The conversations that occurred were generally upbeat. One of my friends kept steering us away from political discussions, reminding us that the fair is a special place, removed from the rest of the world. Focusing on the positive infused our experiences with a joyful, relaxed vibe.

Free expression abounded in various forms. People wore a whole array of unique outfits, adorned their camps with vibrant decorations, and passed their time with silly games. The fact that everyone was accepting and non-judgmental helped to make this possible.

A Supportive Community

Oregon Country Fair sign
Oregon Country Fair is a bit of a maze… an amazing one! © Jenni Denekas

A lot of people chose to use recreational drugs, but no one was ostracized for indulging – or for abstaining. I do not use drugs at all, and felt a lot more accepted and a lot less judged than I was expecting. As someone said, in reference to my energetic demeanor, “I take drugs to feel as good as you seem to feel naturally!” Essentially, as long as you were friendly and having fun, you fit in just fine.

Even when someone was having a hard time, they were supported. Indeed, the community atmosphere of OCF was apparent when folks helped those who were having a tough “trip.” More relevant to my personal experience, folks were also quick to help if you got lost in the labyrinthine fair.

I also saw the community spirit of OCF in action on our final morning at camp. One of my friends shouted out that it was my boyfriend’s birthday, and everyone sang to him. Afterwards, one guy gave my boyfriend the “key to his new age.” Later in the day, my boyfriend and I re-visited one of our favorite stalls. The man running the booth presented my boyfriend with a birthday grapefruit. This was apparently one of the “best grapefruits in the world,” no less.

Indeed, impromptu giving was common at OCF, and the atmosphere was welcoming and respectful. I sincerely hope this was the case for everyone in attendance.

But I want to note that, as a white woman, my appearance may have influenced how I was treated and therefore what my experience felt like. In other words, it’s time to talk about privilege, race, and cultural appropriation.

Race and Cultural Appropriation

I could see how a person of color may feel less comfortable than I did at OCF. Cultural appropriation abounded, including some people who shouldn’t have been wearing feather headdresses. (Alas, they were.) Some booths showcased traditional crafts made by people who were not part of that culture. On the plus side, there was a display about local tribes, their culture, and the genocide rained upon them in the 1800s by white settlers. I’m not trying to excuse the appropriation that I noticed, but I am glad that there was some acknowledgement of the tribes and their history, at least.

My boyfriend and I also noticed that there were not many POC at the fair. Obviously, Oregon is not the most diverse state, but the attendance at OCF still did not seem to reflect the state’s population – and I have to wonder why. Perhaps cultural appropriation makes it unappealing. Perhaps the referral system for campgrounds (which I will delve further into in a moment) means that long-time white attendees invite their white friends, thus creating a cycle. Perhaps something else is at play. On the plus side, I did see a “Black Lives Matter” poster in the fair, and my boyfriend (who is half Japanese) said he felt comfortable and welcome at OCF. Again, I’m not trying to excuse the problems I noted; I’m just pointing out some positives.

A Comfortable Space for Women

A moss peace sign near the Community Village in Oregon Country Fair.  © Jenni Denekas

On the other hand, it was really comfortable to attend the fair as a woman. This especially struck me when I went to the large bonfire/drum circle, and was dancing in a crowd of joyful hippies. I realized OCF was the one and only time in my adult life that I have danced in a crowded place and not been groped. Although that is a sad commentary on our society as a whole, it is a positive commentary on what OCF is like – at least, in my experience.

Of course, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience – and if anyone has something to share, I would be happy to help bring it to light. I did notice flyers by some of the restrooms about reducing the rate of assaults at OCF, which implies that that does happen. And of course, once is far too many times for that to occur.

However, what I experienced and witnessed suggests that it was a relatively safe space for women.

For instance, I was pleasantly surprised that I never saw any of the many topless women being catcalled, mocked for not having a “perfect” body (whatever that means), or otherwise treated any differently than anyone else. Folks seemed to maintain eye contact and treat these topless women with just as much respect as anyone else. I also was glad to see diverse body types baring it all. It seems that body positivity is alive and well at OCF.

There also was an awesome area set aside specifically for women at the fair. This space is the Moon Lodge, a magical den among lush vine maples draped with diaphanous fabric. Filled with comfortable nooks, this space provides a welcome escape from the bustle of the fair. Visitors can read feminist books, draw, chat with other awesome women, test out various tinctures, listen to a talk, or participate in a ceremony. The Moon Lodge also offered information on sexual assault and domestic violence, and free tampons and pads. It is an all-around great resource for women and girls. I was also glad that I didn’t feel the need to retreat into this haven due to anyone’s bad behavior; it was simply somewhere that I visited voluntarily, and enjoyed a lot.

Referral System for Camps

Camp at Oregon Country Fair
Home sweet home in the trees, at a camp near Oregon Country Fair. © Jenni Denekas

So how does this great atmosphere come about? I think the safe and welcoming vibes at OCF stem from the fact that the camps require referrals. For instance, to stay at our camp, one had to be invited by someone who has camped there before. Then each guest still has to fill out an application in order to be approved. Additionally, at our camp, they would throw out troublemakers and whoever invited them. By relying on networking and on strict consequences, the camps help facilitate a safe and enjoyable atmosphere.

However, as I previously mentioned, I wonder if the referral system perpetuates a lack of racial diversity at the fair. I recently heard of some discouraging statistics that indicate that 75% of white people in the United States do not have any close friends who are people of color (link here; get ready to be sad). If that is the case, then the white people who already camp near OCF will invite their white friends, and the demographics of this event will not change. Referrals will not fix this situation, obviously, so it seems necessary to implement new strategies to address the lack of diversity.

Though there are some potential areas of improvement, I was overall impressed with the atmosphere at Oregon Country Fair. Indeed, the vibe was the best part of the entire experience. I can understand why a lot of people consider it a home-away-from-home, and keep coming back.

Ready to plan your visit? Check out my Oregon Country Fair page, or visit the OCF official website.

Have you been before? Share your OCF experience in the comments!

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