Our Oral History

These interviews were conducted, transcribed, and edited by Anh Thang Dao-Shah in Winter 2024.

Dr. Maribel Alvarez

Director,
National Folklife Network;
Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore at the Southwest Center
at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center

Amy Kitchener

Executive Director,
Alliance for California Traditional Arts

Lori Pourier

President/CEO,
First Peoples Fund

Maribel

Amy

Lori

When I first came to the field of folk arts, I did not think of myself as a folklorist. I thought of myself as a cultural worker, a cultural animator, or as a cultural organizer. As someone who studies cultural processes, my interests always lead me to the ordinary culture of people. When I was working in the arts in San Jose, California, one of the first things that attracted me were low rider car and bicycle clubs. I organized an exhibit, and I did deep ethnographic work with a group of young people who had a club of lowrider bicycles. Their artistic understanding was deep and amazing, but they were not plugged into the conventional milieu of the arts in the city. It was an ordinary activity of embellishment, beauty, commitment, and innovation happening on the sidelines of the museum or the gallery. As a cultural practice, it was rooted in community.

When I saw the call for the NFN, I read it through the lens of that experience; through an understanding that there are a lot of people doing amazing work, who are probably called differently than this nomenclature of folk and traditional arts within the National Endowment for the Arts, and who have their own unique history alongside the institutional entities.

I was attracted to the NFN idea because it resonated very personally with a fundamental belief of my life: the idea that the things folklorists care the most about are surrounding us and not necessarily captured by a set of organizational, systematic labels, and that there was a possibility of expanding the universe of those things. I believe that it’s the most enduring and powerful contribution that this field makes to the art and culture sector — precisely, that it is an artistic practice rooted in people’s real life.

Cliff [Murphy] (former NEA director of Folk and Traditional Arts) shared this vision that there was more out there. And then of course, there was the Living Traditions report, which was the basis for this initiative. It validated that among all the areas of funding in the NEA, traditional arts were the discipline that was most directly tied to tangible evidence of equity and diversity across regions, disciplines, social class, ethnicities, and race. So, it attracted me to be able to respond to that call on the belief that we would do that, that we would bring new folks to the table.

At Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), a huge part of our work over the span of time has really been about bringing more resources and support and infrastructure to support the folk and traditional arts, with a special focus on practitioners and resources. That has been our drive for over 25 years since we started ACTA. We are focused on California. One in eight people in the United States live in California. We are leading the country in terms of demographic change, which is the forecast for the rest of the country. As such, we have a lot to bring to any national conversation about how to expand and resource folk and traditional arts. We have been able to work at a noticeable scale and innovate some of the public folklife models. We’ve also been a part of different national advocacy efforts and thinking about infrastructure over the years.

When Cliff brought his vision for this NFN project, we were very engaged in a conversation about this, and we considered applying for it ourselves. Then I learned that my close thinking partner, Maribel Alvarez, was also thinking about this. So, we got together and thought more closely about it together. We thought about what ACTA could bring to this, what could Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA) bring to this? And what do we still need? It was a no-brainer to think about our sister Lori at First People’s Fund, whom we both had worked with and known over the years. She is somebody who’s been able to really scale national work in a very meaningful way. We could be a dream team if we brought resources together from our three organizations and our individual experiences. As individuals we have been in this work for like 30 or 35 years each.

That was an exciting proposition to me, but I really did not want ACTA to be the lead on this, and I was really concerned that there weren’t enough resources to be fully successful. I really admire Maribel as a leader. She had the guts, and she was leveraging all her resources. And collectively, we built on the capacity of these three organizations to work together on a national project that none of us alone could do.

From the perspective of my work at First Peoples Fund (FPF), it is important that emerging cultural workers have some understanding and awareness that this field of traditional arts has been happening for a very long time. It seems to go unrecognized in the philanthropic sector and amongst some of our colleagues in the arts and culture sector.

Following the NEA Living Traditions report, I became aware of the Taproot Report when Amy reached out to me from ACTA. I was a part of that research, and we have several of our Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award honorees (culture bearers) in the final report. When Maribel called about the cooperative agreement and considering her earlier work with FPF it seemed like a natural fit. In addition, Amy and I have been in many circles with others representing and advocating for tradition bearers for many years. Through FPF, I was also very connected and had been working with Cliff Murphy at the National Endowment for the Arts during his tenure. Amy and I both serve in the Library of Congress’s Center for Folk Arts board of trustees as well. So it was a natural progression for FPF to join as a partner in the NFN. It was built on and centered around long-lived relationships.

When Maribel first called, I thought it’d been a long time since I had submitted a cooperative agreement at the NEA. At first, I was not sure, because it is a lot of work. Southwest Folk Alliance took the lead and First Peoples Fund agreed to join. They looked for our leadership in traditional arts, even though FPF doesn’t identify or use the language of folk arts in Indian country.

There were also shifts occurring in the field that prompted our engagement. First Peoples Fund began using the term culture bearer back in 2005, and now it seems common in the arts and social justice, philanthropic and other sectors. Shortly before COVID a network of artists and advocates launched the Cultural New Deal and the culture bearer was the central part of the conversation. We talked about the culture bearers, the knowledge keepers from a range of communities from through the U.S. including Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Today, we were seeing emerging organizations and young people identifying as culture bearers. Yet, FPF CSA honoree Dolores Churchill (Haida) and others like Martha Moreno Vega from the Caribbean Cultural Center are the true culture bearers. They have been doing tradition-based work for decades.

And then there is the flipside of that. There are some amazing young people that began practicing traditional art forms, who speak their Indigenous languages and who are breathing new life into traditional forms of art. Some of them identify as second language learners who are fluent language speakers, when at least two generations of elders that came before them couldn’t speak the language– [due to] Indian boarding school systems, federal systems etc. They have become a movement of language learners and cultural practitioners that are fully invested in the community, sharing their knowledge and teaching the next generations. This is what our ancestors wanted for them.

Amy

Maribel

Lori

Although, from time to time, there are projects of national scope that emerge in the folk arts field, the NEA is the only consistent national infrastructure for the field of folk and traditional arts. They are the only accessible-to-all, dedicated national funding source.

In this context, the NFN is fundamentally a project about filling in the gaps in that known infrastructure.

What I think is powerful, aligned, and successful is the design of the NFN. And it’s amazing that it’s been able to happen with a relatively small resource, considering the mandate. There are these micro cohorts in each of the seven places and at this point, they are adjacent to the infrastructure, they’re not necessarily integrated with the national NEA infrastructure. And, we have evidence of these micro cohorts beginning to gel and do collective and independent work.

We can look at what has been accomplished within each of those cohorts, both as individual members, and collectively, and then we can also look at the impact of all these seven groups working together, and what they are leveraging. Some of that evidence can be seen in the storytelling on the website and in the online magazine about each region. This design, we know it is successful because it is based on research. ACTA did heavy lifting on the field scans that supported the development of these micro cohorts. And it was a big investment on the front end.

Having a strong element of Native American community participation in the NFN, to me, was a breakthrough. That came about because of Lori validating this thought partnership, this consortium idea; because we were intentional in working with First People’s Fund to bring in partners from Native American communities. Lori had already told us –”you’re going to find misalignment, people are going to come in because they’re going to trust you to do something, but they’re not necessarily going to define themselves as practicing folk arts.”

When ACTA did the field scans of the various communities around the country, they revealed that in a community, like Oklahoma for instance, all kinds of people are doing traditional activities, but these communities are not widely represented in the field of folklore studies or in the funding patterns of the NEA. We saw the same in the Northern Plains. Hence, our partnerships are very intentional, driven by data that came from our deep dive into NEA funding patterns. Emmy Her Many Horses looked in depth where any grants had happened over the last few years and it was astonishing — entire swaths of land in this country where for decades no federal support for traditional artists ever flowed, or if it did, it did only through one agency and lots of micro sub grants.

The other thing was that in our selected areas, at least in the three cities that we selected, we were able to be strategic in bringing up folks who met our definition: people who are doing amazing work but are not in the fold of folk arts. Memphis, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC were not by any means communities where there was no activity. To give you an example, in Puerto Rico, our partners have been doing this work for 30 years, but they just received their 501(c)3 status last month. They were not plugged into the nonprofit infrastructure as we know it in the mainland. They were doing it by other means, through contracts and entrepreneurship. When I asked, so how do you pay the bills, they say, “well, we work as actors in commercials that pay and use that money to pay for the theater and festivals.” Their model was so different from the 501(c)3 structure, which is mostly grant dependent. And the fact that we were able to get this motley crew of brilliant characters into this network, to me, speaks to the intentionality of the work. I remember the first few times when people said, “show us what you mean, because I don’t do folklore. I don’t know anything about it.” And we would say, no, you are exactly who we have been looking for, we want you.

When I think about alignment, I think about the website. That was what we immediately moved into and when I saw it come to fruition, I thought to myself, “wow, that was really fast,” and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what is possible. Yet, on the other hand, how does that platform have its own life with the network folks, and how do they see themselves in it, because they’re also busy managing their own websites and platforms?

I also love the writings we commissioned. That is how you strengthen those networks and systems from within. When you’re building these structures for folks to use, they need to establish a sense of trust and relationships or, how we say in our community, learn to be a good relative.

We do the cooperative agreement, we have trust in the partners, because we’ve known each other’s work for a very long time. I’m curious to see what the next steps are. How will the communities continue to benefit from that? That’s what keeps people anchored to the network, to know that they can bring more resources to their community.

Maribel

Amy

Lori

It’s hard to build a network. People are busy with their lives. Sure, you can see something in your email, but it’s not the priority. It’s hard to feel connected to other people that are in seven different regions. We learned the hard way that distance is a big issue. Another big challenge is the difference between cities and rural areas. Washington, DC feels and behaves very differently than the Northern Plains or the Rocky Mountains.

The other challenge has been how to support people financially in some measure, because we recognize that the world doesn’t move without some sort of investment, but the NFN is not a grant making initiative. It’s not about distributing money to a cohort or grant funded organization. And in that sense, it is very different from other initiatives that somewhat might look similar, whether it is the new NEA initiative ArtsHERE or Ford Foundation, Warhol, or Mellon Foundation initiatives, which are designed to form cohorts of grantees.

The NFN had to use funding to get people to the table. It’s not a lot of money that we offer, but it is still something that helps folks feel valued for their time and talents. So how do we make people believe that without grant funding there’s still some benefit to them?

We translated some of the categories usually called “capacity building” into leveraging knowledge by means of kinship, relationships — that is how we see the role of Selena, Alisha, Emmy, and I, as trainers and coaches. And that has been very meaningful for people because even though we do not give people big grants, we help them prepare to write one. Selena put in 18 hours of counseling and coaching for one grant that one of our members was submitting. We use our own social capital to construct some of those benefits.

I think the goal as it is articulated is far reaching. And it’s a huge reach compared to the dollars that have been given to this initiative. To call something an adjacent infrastructure, to me, implies that it’s going to stand up on its own and exist. So, I’d like us to continue to revisit what this really means, and also have a really clear understanding from the NEA about what an adjacent infrastructure means. If it means filling in the gaps then we need to know why the gaps exist, what are the challenges of the existing infrastructure, what capacities the people in the existing infrastructure need to be effective in their jobs?

The challenge coming in was for us, as indigenous peoples, we see things culturally, which often times don’t align with state and federal definitions about what makes a region or a state. In my case, I’m Oglala Lakota. I’m a citizen of my tribe. I’m also a member of a larger community, which is the tribal nations in this region. This is what established who we are as a people in this specific cultural area. It tells our creation story of how we emerged, how we teach, how we relate to all things around us, earth and sky, and protocols for our cultural norms. All those things that make me who I am as Oglala Lakota, a woman citizen, and member of these other connectors and relationships in my community.

I would say that would be one of the first challenges, because we are supposed to work with these regions. But how are those regions defined? Without a whole lot of clarity coming into it, we identified folks who might come in with their own cultural ways of being and working and their organization’s commitment to regions, territories, and families. So, I think that created some challenges that may still be there. For example, someone from the Latinx or some indigenous communities might see themselves as being from Colorado all the way down to South America. The northern part of our defined region is the Rocky Mountains that comes with a whole other set of cultural norms and practices.

Native peoples from our territories feel honored to be asked to participate, and be a part of something, and to fill that role. But they are coming from a place like me, where we do not just represent ourselves or our organizations. We also must represent the territory and regions and communities. That is a heavy responsibility.

Maribel

Amy

First, we must slow down our expectations, we must know that getting to know communities and adding value—I’m not even going to talk about trust, I’m just going to say value added—is something that is going to take time. We also learned that we must be patient and accept people where they’re at. Sometimes there are going to be individuals in the community that are the movers and shakers, and in other communities there are going to be institutions that are poised and ready. But in other instances, the most incredible cultural animators or tradition keepers in a community are going to work under the radar, or stealth vis-à-vis institutions, or adjacent to brick-and-mortar but also in intangible ways.

For example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, our NFN partner is the Woody Guthrie Center. You may say, “Why them?” They are an institution that has funding and staff and exhibits. But it turns out that they are sitting exactly at the intersection of building communities and understanding Woody Guthrie’s legacy in the context of folk and traditional artists and communities that surround them.

As an institution, it offers a vital connection to an area, and even though it carries the name of one of the top folk singers in the country, that legacy is connected to the dots operationally on the ground who are doing community building work in Tulsa today. So, we admit that individuals and institutions could learn something from each other. That has been another realization of the network; that it is okay for a network to be disparate, and look initially like a Swiss cheese, with some solid things and some holes.

I think we also realized that we must invest more in communication. So, we expanded the role of the NFN’s communications staff. Alisha was initially a person to do social media posting. Then, in Rapid City, we came to the realization that Alisha is the glue. Alisha talked to people; she posted about and reposted what folks were doing in their organizations. And all that goes beyond social media to become building knowledge and trust.

Networks take time and intention. It has taken a while for folks to know what it is exactly that we are and what we aim to accomplish or even to feel comfortable naming themselves as the right people to be in the room. I think that has now changed– that if you are working in fashion, or retail, or are a filmmaker, or work with youth high school bands, or are an oral historian, or a director of a community center, you can now say, oh yes, my work is part of a continuum of heritage knowledge and community animation at the level of everyday life that counts as folk and traditional arts in the larger frame of that intention.

I keep going back to South Dakota, in my mind. I think that the convening was super important and super powerful in establishing the NFN. It was the first time we had to show ourselves to each other. There was something formative at that convening because before that, it was theoretical and abstract. And then you see that the people in this room are the dots on the map. And there was something very generative about that retreat and that work.

In terms of sustainability, I think that continued investment and work with these existing cohorts will be critical. We’re at the beginning, and we are seeing signs of impact that are coming out of this work. For example, I got excited to see the group from Memphis coming to Washington, DC to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And there is added impact that comes from the exchanges and cross learning between the various sites.

I also had the opportunity to spend half a day in Puerto Rico when we were at the Grantmakers in the Arts convening with the Agua, Sol y Sereno group. And we met a couple of the other members of the micro cohort from Puerto Rico that they are forming. And I think that’s when we had the chance to understand their work more deeply; how they’re bridging a lot of communities. The cohort in Puerto Rico is a powerfully connected community. It’s very natural for them to be reaching out to these other artists and organizations that are becoming part of their cohort, because they do that work already.

So, part of the work of the NFN is identifying and lifting up powerful infrastructure that’s already there, as well as supporting and validating it in small but meaningful ways. I think that’s a powerful concept to think about, kind of like cultural asset mapping. We can identify, not discover, some of the nodes on the map that are in these different regions. And I think that’s a replicable model that carries a potential for collaboration with the existing infrastructure.

Lori

Maribel

Amy

I think trust is hard to build through Zoom meetings. One thing we did through FPF’s Intercultural Leadership Institute is full on immersion in our communities. And now, I follow several of those connections. One of them is from Hawaii. She talked about ways of being in protocols in Hawaiian culture and how she’s able to carry that because it’s a way of being that she knows at home. So, when times become difficult or challenging in learning about somebody’s house cultures and ways because of trauma or things that have happened to them, she can bring and carry that with her. Because she was taught to move in space within space, it’s not as traumatizing.

So sometimes trust becomes another layer of unpeeling onions before you can say, I can trust you. The more people can gather in communities the easier it becomes. That is my way, and my teachings.

For example, a young woman from the Alaska cohort called upon me to come to Cedar pole, Totem lifting in Alaska. And I was like, “that’s a long way to go.” But really, I should be there.  I went up to Emily’s pole lifting and all of First Peoples Fund’s community Spirit Award honorees were there, because it was the highest honor to see this pole lifting happening. Because it was the most revered carvers of totems, you know, that were coming together. So, when I got up there, and they asked me to speak, I realized we had 12 culture bearers that have received that award. And all of them were in the room except for three or four who passed. It was pretty amazing. That’s being a good relative to each other.

It was their way to honor and give back. And they wanted the NFN to send someone so I said, I can go up there. I flew all the way up there and had to immediately come back for something else. But that was my responsibility that I felt in my role in this partnership to build this trust.

From the start, intrinsic to the original scope of the NFN, there was a presumption—or maybe I should say, just a suspicion—that some of the data revealed by the Living Traditions portfolio analysis about who was getting access to NEA resources and where gaps were – might be tied to perceptions about the category of “folks and traditional arts” not being their space. This was certainly true about some artmakers in the portfolios of tribal communities or rural folks or folks in a U.S. territory, for example. One would surmise that in assessing whether I belong under a label or not—in this case a label attached to a funding track in a federal agency—that this is somehow connected to trust. So, trust issues were not something that startled us in discovery. Lori had spoken to us for years about the nomenclature of the folklore field and its ill-fitting position among indigenous artists.

One way I think we aimed to build trust is by acknowledging this transparently at the outset. It is written into our values that we are not here to make anyone fit under any label that raises questions. I think the NFN has been self-aware and open-hearted about what this initiative is, and can do, and what it can’t be or is not. Part of that transparency has also been living up to what I call “being of service” – making sure folks knew that the NEA and the NFN were there to help them, not asking that folks help us meet a quota of this or that. The NFN does not exist to make the NEA look good, but to extend the democratic inclusiveness of the agency’s Folk and Traditional Arts program to many who are doing amazing work outside the scope or lens of NEA funding. But you can say these things all day long and then act differently – fall back into that vague sense of “charitable benevolence” that people can read in you a mile away.

So, we worked hard, really hard, at how we spoke, behaved, and treated one another –to mean what we said and say what we meant…. and some of that was not too hard to do because we genuinely knew that there is powerful equity and beauty work being done outside the viewfinder eye of the agency. This recognition was the impetus for the NFN. In a way the Living Traditions research already highlighted that the NEA had to learn from the field, and this has been a logic we have carried throughout, even when we face hard conversations.

Being of service also means making some practical choices, like offering compensation, being available to offer training and coaching on what people really need, listening, letting each cohort form in their own ways, support what they are already cooking instead of asking them to put up a dog and pony shows for us; not talking down to anyone but in fact exalting local expertise and us accommodating to what they already know to be consequential in their communities; not having a cookie-cutter approach to how one creates and builds a network, but letting people dynamics flow.

Having three thought leaders with different stakes in the national folk arts infrastructure field has helped build trust. ACTA was pivotal in our baby steps to scratch the surface because they did the field scans that identified assets in each region and lent their expertise on doing this from 10,000 feet above the ground but also feeling really grounded. It is because of ACTA’s field scans that we were able to make the optimal choices when we invited Connectors and Voices. First Peoples Fund lent us the respectability of Lori, their expertise in working nationally, the home for our first NFN staff, Emmy, who used her knowledge of Native communities to ease us into conversations and helped gather us in person in Rapid City. It feels like every decision we have made at NFN, from small to large, has been made intentionally to signal our critical awareness of historic distrust and our willingness to change that pattern through transparency. And when you act right, people see it just as fast as they can sense when you are phony. People know.

The NFN has been operating in a framework of what we might call trust-based philanthropy. We are not positioning the administrators of the NFN to work in a transactional way with people. We’re very consciously trying to push the other direction, in a trusting way, where we honor the knowledge that people already have, the resources that they bring. That was also the methodology of the field scan, something based on strengths and not deficits.

The convening was very intentionally built around that kind of philosophy. I think one of the maybe most powerful moments of that convening that I noticed was what happened when an artist got up and talked about their stories. In the very next moment, other members in the group immediately jumped in, and in a very generous way, and began offering support. I don’t know if you can do that if you don’t have trust.

I think that we are doing a lot to build trust. And that it is foundational to the values of the NFN that we’ve established. And it’s evident in the actual practices of how the NFN is communicating with the cohort. The transparency of communications the way Maribel has done, it’s hard to do consistently all the time. I’ve really appreciated her updates and how she communicated with the whole cohort. She was keeping everyone abreast of their expectations, and where we are as a group.

Key NFN Moments:

October 2019:

National Endowment for the Arts publishes the Living Traditions Report, a portfolio analysis of the NEA’s Folk and Traditional Arts Programs. The analysis reveals that Folk & Traditional Arts grants are the agency’s most effective tool for serving rural and poverty-bound communities, but also identifies seven strategic locations vastly underrepresented and calls for a new initiative to grow capacity and leadership.

June 2021:

The NEA enters into a Cooperative Agreement with the Southwest Folklife Alliance, in partnership with Alliance for California Traditional Arts and First Peoples Fund, to to establish and manage the National Folklife Network (NFN), an initiative to build the capacity of cultural heritage organizations, strengthen folk & traditional arts infrastructure, and foster a thriving ecosystem for the field.

Throughout 2022:

The Alliance for California Traditional Arts conducts big-picture “Field Scans” of four regions and three cities. Applying principles of asset mapping, through gathering of demographic data, industry research, and interviews to capture first-voice narratives with culture bearers and other key stakeholders, ACTA lays the foundation for identifying critical hubs and emerging leaders who can become NFN partners.

July 6, 2022

Our Voices/Our Art is first published online as an NFN adjacent project, a literary magazine and mentorship program for sense-of-place writing for adults and youth in the seven regions/cities where NFN is working.

March 2023:

The first gathering of NFN members takes place in Rapid City, ND, hosted by First Peoples Fund. The network takes off with nearly 30 members drawn from a wide range of roles and ambiguous relationships to the established field of folk and traditional arts. NFN members work on a preliminary “Logic Model” and discussions at the gathering help revise and refine the development of the NFN values.