When Vans Warped Tour approached Baltimore band War On Women to come on its 40-city music festival, frontwoman Shawna Potter had reservations. Rife with corporate sponsorship and criticized for mishandling alleged misconduct in the past, the traveling rock music event didn't immediately make sense for the co-ed feminist hardcore-punk band.
"Why should our band get involved in playing this tour?" she recalled wondering. "The only thing we could really think of that wasn't capitalist was, well, if they want War On Women, why don't we bring War On Women? Why don't we bring our activism with us?"
That activism will take the form of a "Safer Scenes" booth at the festival, where two volunteers will teach interested festival attendees — many of them teenagers — skills to identify, prevent and address sexual harassment and violence, racism, ableism and more. Potter is considering it a summer project of Hollaback! Baltimore, the anti-harassment organization of which she founded the local chapter.
"We want it to be normal that standing up against '-isms' is what's actually right and what's actually punk," Potter said.
War On Women — whose members also include Brooks Harlan on guitar and Sue Werner on bass — will take the Safer Scenes booth to all 40 stops of Warped Tour, which kicks off Friday in Seattle and comes to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on July 16.
After War On Women signed on to the festival and proposed the "Safer Scenes" project, Warped Tour representatives were receptive and excited, Potter said. Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman said the band's activism attracted him.
"I encourage artists to follow their passions, and War On Women, they appeal to me, that's why I booked them, because I heard they were a band that actually gives a crap about anything," Lyman said over the phone.
Potter's initial hesitation came from the fact that "Warped Tour is really problematic, honestly," she said. She brought up an incident involving singer-songwriter Jake Mcelfresh, known as Front Porch Step, who was accused of sexual misconduct. Mcelfresh was allowed to perform at Warped Tour's Nashville, Tenn., stop in 2015 after allegations surfaced, prompting The Wonder Years' Dan "Soupy" Campbell to cancel his set and other bands to speak out against the decision.
"I think people think Warped Tour could have handled it better, but I also think that that's probably true for most festivals in the U.S," Potter said. "It's just a problem that isn't being addressed in the best, open way."
Lyman said that he's still learning how to handle incidents like the Front Porch Step controversy.
"[Mcelfresh's] counseling team ... approached me" about having him play, Lyman said. "Do I look at it now and maybe handle it differently? But you know what, at that point I was going on the advice of professionals."
The Baltimore Sun could not reach Mcelfresh for comment.
Last year, Lyman paid for A Voice for the Innocent, a nonprofit community support group for victims of rape and sex abuse, to distribute information on the tour, he said.
"The Front Porch Step thing was two years ago," he added. "It's all a learning process."
Kira-Lynn Ferderber specializes in skills to address such situations. The rapper, who lives in Ottawa, Ontario, teaches sexual violence prevention through bystander intervention at music festivals throughout Canada, and she'll be bringing those skills to War On Women's "Safer Scenes" booth all summer. (War on Women members can't teach the skills themselves because they'll be playing shows and Potter can't lose her voice.)
Ferderber is focused on fighting bystander apathy at music festivals like Warped Tour.
"In big groups, people can freeze up, or they can feel like they don't have the responsibility to do anything, that someone else will take care of it," she said over the phone. "Festivals and shows have a potential to be really safe spaces, because there's a ton of people around who could help you if you need help."
It just takes the skills, which is where the "Safer Scenes" booth comes in. Ferderber and another volunteer will distribute information on local organizations and resources, as well as handouts on how to identify issues and how to intervene.
Because of Warped Tour's young demographic, Potter knows it may be many attendees' first rock show, so she hopes they learn skills they can carry into their lives — which might eventually include booking shows or playing in bands.
The band has been working to raise money for the booth, including through a GoFundMe page, which will go toward things like flyers, tables, a tent, some fun elements like buttons, stickers or games to grab concertgoers' attention, and a small stipend to help the volunteers cover essentials like food and rent while they are away from home and work.
Warped Tour gave the project some startup money, a number "in the thousands," Lyman said.
Potter will also host a daily ticketed workshop, called "Creating Safer Spaces: You Have the Power to Shape Your Scene," where she'll go more in-depth on the issues, she said.
Potter knows that a lot of people aren't necessarily attending a music festival to learn about violence and harassment. But she thinks the presence of the "Safer Scenes" booth — as well as the presence of War On Women in often male-dominated spaces — should be enough to get people thinking.
"I'm hopeful [we have a warm reception], but there's always people who just want to listen to music, and that's fine, too," she said. "They don't have to come to the booth. It's not some overwhelming blanket tent that you're required to go to like it's homework or something.
"It's OK if it's a slow burn. It's not flashy, it's not romantic, it's not fun and extreme and 'Warped Tour.' What I want is real change, and sometimes that can be really slow, and it's gotta sink in for people."
If you go
Vans Warped Tour will stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10457 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, on July 16. Doors open at 11 a.m. $29-$52. merriweathermusic.com