Folk and Traditional Arts and Social Change
Folk arts include a constellation of artistic activities and cultural expressions in community life that are informal, often popular in orientation, amateur, voluntary, and occurring in myriad social contexts. As expressions of deep cultural knowledge, creative expression, activism, cultural durability, and community values, folk and traditional arts can be tools for community empowerment and social change. In this paper, author Betsy Peterson captures a range of cultural activity beyond familiar forms such as protest songs that use cultural tradition to explicitly address or mobilize public opinion on political or social issues. She characterizes subtle but potent ways that cultural workers, activists, and others intentionally draw upon folk and traditional arts and culture to name and interpret their own experience, to test their own boundaries, and to affirm a cultural continuity in the face of social concerns. Preservation in the form of cultural engagement and participation can be a form of place-based advocacy as well as an act of naming, resistance, and critical affirmation for communities whose cultural values, languages, and art forms find little support or recognition mainstream systems. Increasingly, individuals and organizations are employing ethnographic field methods of listening and observation and the tools of documentation in community development and planning processes, for cultural and creative capacity building, and in arenas of education, social justice, and mental health and healing. Folk and traditional arts can also create space for dialogue that enables full and authentic engagement with others. Examples highlight how folk arts organizations and their programs, through dialogue, foster intergenerational connection and understanding; broker conversation, opportunity, and access to resources; and link history to contemporary issues toward deeper understanding.