By Linda Shopes
It all began with a casual conversation on the way to class and a couple of well timed e-mails. That’s how Rory Turner, a folklorist and assistant professor in the sociology and anthropology department at Goucher College, describes the origin of Goucher College’s Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability, a 39.5-credit graduate program that combines an interdisciplinary approach to culture with practical professional skills.
Back in late 2007, Turner, whose work with the Maryland State Arts Council’s Maryland Traditions program had led him to develop an appreciation for forms of cultural expression and notions of tradition that fell outside older folklore paradigms, was thinking out loud with a colleague as they walked across campus about what an academic program that took an engaged, activist approach to cultural preservation might look like. Simultaneously, Deborah Cebula, the college’s Assistant Dean and Director of Professional Graduate Programs, was seeking to develop offerings congruent with Goucher’s commitment to global perspectives, social service, and social justice. Turner emailed his initial ideas to Cebula; she responded positively, and the two developed a prospectus for a graduate program in what they were terming “cultural heritage practice.” A market test suggested the program’s feasibility.
Yet the two found the term “cultural heritage practice” itself unsatisfying. “Heritage” connoted a static approach to preserving traditional culture for its own sake, analogous to historic preservation’s efforts to protect elements of the built environment deemed historically significant. They had in mind something more forward looking: an approach that understood culture, often expressed in everyday practices by local people, as a resource for promoting supportive, humane communities as they change in the present and evolve towards the future. An e-mail from Goucher’s president, Sanford Unger, promoting the college’s environmental sustainability initiatives resonated with Turner’s and Cebula’s thinking: what they were talking about was in fact “cultural sustainability.”
Thus was born in 2009 this innovative graduate program, which includes courses in such areas as cultural documentation, partnerships, and policy as well as skills like organizational development, grant- writing, budgeting, marketing, and promotion. Some thirty-two students have enrolled in the program since it welcomed its first class in January 2010; an additional six are scheduled to begin the program this August. Much of the course work is carried out online, through intensive, highly interactive group work for which faculty receive specialized training. During two week-long on-campus residencies, students participate in seminars, field experiences, and special events, deepening the virtual community that develops with face-to-face contact.
Students come from around the country and their work engages various communities: New Mexico ranchers, Bosnian immigrants, patrons of a restaurant and bar in Mineral County, West Virginia. Yet the program also cultivates considerable connections with the mid-Atlantic region: residencies have included field experiences at Baltimore’s Lexington Market, where food is a point of entrée into diverse cultural practices in a multicultural urban setting; and St. Michael’s, Maryland, where the contemporary cultural landscape includes conflict between those whose families have worked the water for generations/and often more affluent newcomers who appreciate the amenities offered by a water-oriented lifestyle.
Turner and Cebula readily admit that cultural sustainability is a capacious, fluid, sometimes frustratingly imprecise intellectual umbrella for what they are seeking to do with the program. In a recent keynote address before the Arkansas Arts Council, Turner, who served as the program’s founding academic director, defined cultural sustainability through a series of questions:
- What matters to us collectively?
- What serves human and planetary well-being?
- How can we balance conservation and progress?
- How can we heal the world and its communities, human and ecological?
- What are the gifts that are the channels of cultural transmission and transformation?
Addressing these questions animates the program. According to Turner, “Part of our work is to create a response to what cultural sustainability means. That has become part of what we are doing, and not only in the content of the curriculum modules. Our students are helping define the field though their thinking, writing, and action.”
For Stephanie Boyle, a recent college graduate and member of the program’s initial student cohort, the question of what constitutes cultural sustainability “is the simplest question to ask and the hardest one to answer.” Yet answer it she does, as her everyday work as Education Director at the Sandy Spring Museum in Montgomery County, Maryland, is increasingly informed by her work in the M.A. program. She explains, for example, how a course on cultural partnerships led her to “look for community organizations that the museum could develop partnerships with, such as the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, Visarts, and Art on the Block. My long term goal for these types of partnerships is to grow the constituency of the museum and help strengthen the community. As more development changes this area, it is my hope that by creating programs focused on working with children we can teach them from a young age to be inquisitive about our community’s history and show them ways they can impact the future.” In practice, then, cultural sustainability supports an ethic of collaboration within a community, and a view of history and culture as not quaint remnants of the past but as starting point for thinking about change over time and one’s role in that continuing process.
Queen Nur (Karen Abdul-Malik), a well-established storyteller and teaching artist in the griotic tradition with a longstanding relationship to the mid-Atlantic region, entered the Goucher program in August 2010 to deepen her understanding of folklore and develop an authoritative voice for African American storytelling within the circle of international storytellers. She has found that “every single course is applicable to my work and to my life.” Through a progression of courses, she first developed and then has refined a vision for a program, termed SCATTS (Sustaining Culture and Tradition though Storytelling), that aims “to preserve, perpetuate, and sustain storytelling and folk life traditions by building awareness, respect and ownership within communities, and by using these traditions to give communities voice and affect social change.”
The SCATTS prototype will first be implemented in Willingboro, New Jersey, as an effort to counter a perceived civic apathy and spur community engagement through intergenerational cultural programming, public events, and careful documentation of community assets, issues, and needs. Unsurprisingly, for Queen Nur storytelling, “the stories we tell about our own communities, cultures, families,” is the heart of cultural sustainability. But it’s storytelling that broadens out in a programmatic way to catalyze sustaining, positive change. “To me, she avers, “cultural sustainability is about livability.”
Asked to define what he wants students to learn most deeply through the Cultural Sustainability Program, Turner responds in the language of the humanities: “To think in creative ways about the kind of cultural life that articulates with sustainability on the planet; to recognize that sustainability is an ongoing process; to develop the tools and dispositions to be able to work on projects from a standpoint of true partnership and care; to cultivate a refined sense of ethics, balance between an awareness of their own fallibility and hope, and a deep sense of their own capacity for transformation as well as humility in the face of challenges.”
This innovative program merits our careful attention in coming years as the region – and the nation – benefits from the work of its graduates.
Linda Shopes is contributing editor for Cross Ties. She is a freelance developmental editor and consultant in oral and public history.